The secretary of the Army yesterday telephoned the widow of Capt. Charles F. "Chic" Burlingame III, pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, to say he had reversed his stand and would let the former Navy flier be buried in his own grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
Secretary Thomas E. White's announcement came after days of legislative threats, public outrage and anguished protests from relatives over the Army's refusal to depart from the rule book for Burlingame, who many believe died a hero fighting terrorists before his plane hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
Yesterday the Pentagon said that Burlingame would not be required to share a grave and headstone at Arlington with his parents and that his services Wednesday would include a ceremonial flyover by two Navy jets. The reversal also means Sheri Burlingame can be buried with her husband.
"I'm feeling on top of the world," Burlingame said after White called her at home in Herndon. "It has been a whirlwind, and it relieves me to have it end so positively. I wish I could personally thank all of the people across the country who have helped Chic get his rightful place in Arlington."
White said he changed his mind after consulting with the White House and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. He acknowledged that he was influenced by growing pressure from Capitol Hill, where bills had been written to force the Army to honor Burlingame, 51, with his own grave. A full burial was rejected because cemetery rules say retired reservists must turn 60 to be eligible. Burlingame had flown F-4 Phantom fighter jets for eight years in the Navy and served 17 years in the reserves.
"To honor the intent of proposed legislation, and to meet the wishes of his grieving family for a December 12 funeral, I have granted a waiver allowing Captain Burlingame to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in a separate grave," White said. "I have spoken with the Burlingame family to inform them of my decision. I also expressed my condolences for their tragic loss."
The Navy flyover most likely will use EA-6B Prowlers from the Naval Air Facility Washington at Andrews Air Force Base, said Cmdr. Tom Van Leunen, a spokesman.
Administration officials said that White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. carefully monitored talks about the burial but that the White House did not directly intervene. "This decision was made by the Department of the Army," an administration official said.
The White House issued a statement last night, saying: "The President is pleased that the Department of the Army and the family were able to work this out."
Sen. John W. Warner (Va.), the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, helped spearhead the campaign on Burlingame's behalf, saying he was driven in part by evidence that the pilot died fighting the hijackers, not in the crash.
"I felt very strongly that this was a meritorious case," he said yesterday. "The final cog in the wheel was the examination of his remains, which indicated Captain Burlingame was in a struggle and died before the crash, doing his best to save lives on the aircraft and on the ground."
On Thursday, Warner and other senators proposed an amendment to the Defense Department appropriations bill that would allow burial at Arlington for all retired reservists who died in the Sept. 11 attacks. The measure, which gained bipartisan support in the Senate, was joined by a House bill that would eliminate the age requirement for burial.
Those efforts were matched by a swell of support from across the country, including dozens of veterans who offered their future places at Arlington to the pilot.
"This is a recognition that the events of September 11 were wartime events," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). "The fatalities of that day are all heroes and deserve to be honored as such."
White waived the rules for Burlingame less than a week before the pilot's scheduled funeral. Members of Congress had worried that the legislation would not pass in time for the ceremony, and some senators said it would have been a severe embarrassment for the government not to grant a waiver.
Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who is scheduled to speak at the funeral, was circulating a petition among colleagues yesterday that was to go to President Bush. About 20 senators -- including Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) -- had signed before White called Burlingame's family at 3:30 p.m. yesterday.
"I applaud the secretary of the Army and the president," Allen said, adding that he teared up when he spoke to Sheri Burlingame yesterday. "I'm just so glad they used their heads and their hearts in this. This is a tragedy, but the right thing was finally done."
Staff writer Mike Allen contributed to this report.