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Daughter, searching for parents, finds a 9/11 hero

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- Mariah Mills thought she knew who her birth father might be after finding out he had probably died, even without immediately learning his name.

Years earlier, after hearing that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center while she was a high school student here, she felt she had lost someone. Now, Mills was even more sure after talking briefly on the phone with her mother, who had seen Mills' parents' names on her daughter's birth certificate, only saying they would talk about it later.

"I remember her saying, 'I think my birth dad is dead," her friend Margaret Nevins recalled in an article published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "She said, 'I think it's that guy who died in 9/11.' I thought she was jumping to conclusions. She was pretty sure about it, though."

And she was right.

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Mills' father, who had given Mills up for adoption when he and his girlfriend were in college, was Tom Burnett, a leader of a group that fought back on Flight 93 before it crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.

Her father, Walter Mills, shakes his head in disbelief as he recollects her words back on 9/11. "That -- what's the word? Premonition? Yes, premonition. That's nothing science could ever explain."

Mills learned about her birth father in 2004 -- after she turned 19, the legal age in Minnesota for requesting a birth certificate with names of birth parents -- and subsequent DNA tests confirmed that Burnett was her father.

Today, Mills has developed a relationship with Burnett's widow, Deena, her three daughters, husband and stepson, and other members of Burnett's family. She celebrated her birthday with her birth mother, who lives in St. Paul with her husband and two children and asked not to be named for this story.

But learning about her father's death on that infamous day without never having had the chance to meet him was difficult, Mills and her family recalled.

Mills and her parents visited Jefferson High School in Bloomington during the spring of 2004 after Mariah found out about her birth parents. Mariah wanted to look up Tom Burnett in his senior yearbook. She found his photo and one of her birth mother..

She visited Tom Burnett's grave at Fort Snelling National Cemetery and left flowers there. She spent most of the rest of spring break crying. She locked herself in her bedroom and scarcely ate or slept. Her parents encouraged her to take a leave from DePaul University in Chicago, but she refused.

Deena Burnett was one of the few people who knew Tom had fathered a child given up for adoption. She and Tom met in Atlanta in July 1989 during an afternoon happy hour when she was a Delta Air Lines flight attendant and he was a regional sales manager.

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About six weeks into their relationship, Tom told her his girlfriend in college had gotten pregnant, that the two had talked about getting married and had finally decided to give the baby up for adoption.

Mills transferred to the University of Minnesota for her senior year.

"Before I was even born, my birth dad made a brave decision -- to give me a life," Mills said. "It was a selfless act, just like his actions on Flight 93. And, as awful as it was that he died, and I never got to know him, there is good that came out of this. We each sort of get part of Tom back. I get all of them and they get me, his daughter."

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