ST. PAUL (WCCO) — Early Saturday morning at the Minnesota State Capitol, a bell rang after each name.
Minnesota lost four of its own 20 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001: Gordy Aamoth Jr. and Gary Koecheler were in the Twin Towers; Tom Burnett Jr. was on United Flight 93; and Master Sergeant Max Beilke died in the Pentagon attack.
In the nation’s longest war that followed, 109 more died while serving our country.
One-by-one, those names were said aloud against the backdrop of an American flag hanging from two fire trucks and blowing in the wind. Mariah Jacobsen read the name of a man she never knew, but is her link to the tragedy: Tom Burnett.
Burnett was one of the heroes who took back Flight 93 from hijackers and averted another catastrophe. That plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania, sparing so many more lives of those on the ground.
He was, Jacobsen would come to learn later, her biological father who had given her up for adoption when she was an infant.
“I gained and lost him all at once,” she said. “My life changed on Sept. 11, 2001. I didn’t know at the time, but I felt it.”
At the foot of the state capitol, Jacobsen told a crowd of hundreds her father’s story and how it had come to shape so much of her own. She said she grappled with so many conflicting emotions after her birth certificate arrived and learned of her biological father’s identity: grief, disappointment, relief and immense pride.
She was lost following his tragic death, but said discovered a blessing in reconnecting with her half-sisters, Tom’s daughters with his wife Deena. It was through them that she learned more about the person he was.
“Even if I can’t see him, I can feel him,” she said through tears. “Each time I need to muster an extra ounce of courage or whenever I’m struggling to find light in the darkness, I feel his encouraging hand on my shoulder.”
Minnesotans and state leaders listened intently to Jacobsen and other speakers who remember lives lost and recounted the sacrifices of that day, including those killed in the years that followed years after in the country’s longest war.
Jill Stephenson said 20 years ago at age 13, her son Ben Kopp was called to action after feeling angered by the tragedy and wanting revenge on the attackers who caused so much harm. He would later join the military and died in 2009 from injuries he sustained while serving in Afghanistan. He saved six other soldiers in that firefight.
“His life book ended at year 21 but not before he gave up his future to make the word a better place for people half way across the world,” she told the crowd.
One of Tom Burnett’s last words on earth were telling is wife he was going to “do something” to fight back against the attackers who took over Flight 93, Jacobsen recalled. Minnesota and the world knows the act of bravery that followed.
Those words have left an indelible mark on Jacobsen in the form of a tattoo. There is a little plane hovering in the contours of the letter “g” in “something.” It’s her life’s mantra and encourages others to apply it to their own lives.
“There are always good people who are willing to act and to make a difference,” she said. “And Tom was one of those people.”