If a person’s guardian angels ever deserved a medal of honor, Arlene Burns would like to nominate hers.
The Mosier resident and former U.S. Whitewater team member has fallen 1,000 feet off an Alaskan glacier, dropped 100 feet off a waterfall in North Carolina, and tumbled down a mountainside inside a burning tour bus in Nepal, and lived to tell about each life-altering experience.
Over the course of her 42 years, Burns has escaped destiny’s clutches more than a dozen times — including twice in the past year — and each new brush with death makes her feel like her place in this world is all the more tenuous.
But none of Burns’ near-death experiences remains as vivid in her memory as the one that occurred one year ago today — the anniversary of the most horrific, tragic day in our nation’s history.
“I felt really close to 9-11 in an eerie, ironic sort of way,” said Burns, who had reserved a seat on United flight 175 out of Boston that she cancelled a few days earlier to rendezvous with an old friend from Montreal.
“So many things happened to me that day, and around that day, that it was almost like I knew something bad had happened,” she said.
Just like Burns’ intuition told her to postpone her trip on Korean Air flight 007 — a passenger aircraft shot down over the Sea of Japan by the Soviet Union on Sept. 1, 1983 — it told her to change her scheduled flight on Sept. 11, 2001.
After wrestling with indecision for just a moment, she essentially changed her fate by changing her plans.
“I guess one of the things this experience has taught me is that it’s so important to listen to our instincts and to be flexible,” she said. “Of course I didn’t know that flight was going to crash into the World Trade Center. I just changed my plans at the last minute to meet up with my friend.”
Like most monumentally historic events — the Kennedy assassination, Armstrong on the moon, etc. — Burns recalls exactly how she felt and exactly what she was doing that fateful morning.
She remembers having breakfast with her friend, Laurent, on her brother’s waterfront deck in Hull, Mass., watching the planes take off and land at Logan International Airport.
They noticed that a few of the aircrafts had a mysterious glow about them that day — “an intense, fiery shimmer from the morning sunlight that made us wonder ‘where are they going, and who are the people in there?’”
Burns couldn’t be certain that any of the planes she saw were part of the infamous terrorist battalion, but she claims feeling a cosmic premonition unlike any other that morning.
Adding an even more visceral texture to the morning, Burns remembers glancing at the clock at exactly 8:45 a.m. — the instant United flight 175 slammed into the South Tower. Not more than a couple hours later, her brother unexpectedly came home to deliver the tragic news.
“Without him saying what had happened, the first words out of my mouth were, ‘did someone bomb America?’” she said. “Strangely, without seeing anything on TV or hearing anything on the radio, I almost knew what had happened.”
Her relationship to 9-11 became even more personal when she looked at her cancelled flight reservation, only to realize that by some cosmic twist of fate, she was granted a new lease on life.
Just like Sept. 1, 1983, Burns was scheduled to die that day, but never got on the plane.
“I feel like I’ve stumbled upon something,” she said. “It’s strange to think that I may have been destined to die that day, and I somehow sidestepped my own fate.
“It’s really been a liberation of spirit for me. Since that day, I’ve stopped trying to make things work, and have just let them happen to me more. I have a totally clean slate now, and I can do whatever I want with my life.”
Burns has spent most of the past decade as a freelance broadcaster for NBC, ESPN, PBS, National Geographic and other networks. But after another brush with death on 9-11, and the resulting shift in the economy, she began to realize that her career direction may also be shifting.
Until this summer, she had worked as a host and color commentator for the Gorge Games coverage on NBC. She had also received funding for three international film projects, and was scheduled to guide three trips for National Geographic Expeditions.
But all the money had dried up, and one by one, all the trips were cancelled. As a result, Burns was forced to cope with the potential reality that she wasn’t supposed to be here anymore.
“When NBC said they didn’t need me back and all the money disappeared for the National Geographic programs, I remember thinking something strange was going on,” she said.
“I had been historically imprinted on the Gorge Games, and all of a sudden, it was gone — which had nothing to do with the economy. It’s as if I didn’t exist anymore.
“I wondered why I was losing all this work, and then it dawned on me: What if I was supposed to be dead? Sometimes people die when they’re not supposed to, so why couldn’t it happen the other way around?” she said.
After nine months of introspection and soul-searching — which included a trip to Mexico that led to a near-fatal windsurfing accident — Burns began to feel her momentum shift back toward a more positive direction in June.
She has found new peace in her life, and has turned to her background living in the Himalayas, as well as certain Buddhist beliefs, to help synthesize the feelings that continue to resonate from Sept. 11.
“The gifts we have in this world are extraordinary, but until you know extreme pain, you cannot truly appreciate them or understand extreme joy,” she said. “I believe it is crucial to maintain a dynamic balance — like surfing a wave.
“The Buddhists call it ‘indifference,’ but it doesn’t mean that one does not care. It means that whatever happens — whether we perceive it to be great or horrible — it doesn’t affect us so much that it makes us lose our balance. I am hoping that we as a country and a world can find the ‘gifts’ from last year’s tragedy. It has made us all reflect upon what really matters and how precious life is.”
No one needs to tell Arlene Burns how precious life is. She has experienced extreme joy and extreme pain, and shares the same grief and sorrow with every U.S. citizen when rehashing the events of 9-11-01.
Although Burns found herself a lot closer to those events than most people, she still believes everything happens for a reason, and from her latest brush with death, she has a renewed understanding about how fragile life can be.
“One thing’s for sure: My guardian angels have been working overtime,” she said.