The suspicious death of outspoken 9/11 widow Beverly Eckert

 My Silence Cannot Be Bought 
By Beverly Eckert
This piece by Beverly Eckert was originally published on Friday, December 19, 2003, and ran on the Opinion page. (USA Today)

I've chosen to go to court rather than accept a payoff from the 9/11 victims compensation fund. Instead, I want to know what went so wrong with our intelligence and security systems that a band of religious fanatics was able to turn four U.S passenger jets into an enemy force, attack our cities and kill 3,000 civilians with terrifying ease. I want to know why two 110-story skyscrapers collapsed in less than two hours and why escape and rescue options were so limited.

I am suing because unlike other investigative avenues, including congressional hearings and the 9/11 commission, my lawsuit requires all testimony be given under oath and fully uses powers to compel evidence.

The victims fund was not created in a spirit of compassion. Rather, it was a tacit acknowledgement by Congress that it tampered with our civil justice system in an unprecedented way. Lawmakers capped the liability of the airlines at the behest of lobbyists who descended on Washington while the Sept. 11 fires still smoldered.

And this liability cap protects not just the airlines, but also World Trade Center builders, safety engineers and other defendants.

The caps on liability have consequences for those who want to sue to shed light on the mistakes of 9/11. It means the playing field is tilted steeply in favor of those who need to be held accountable. With the financial consequences other than insurance proceeds removed, there is no incentive for those whose negligence contributed to the death toll to acknowledge their failings or implement reforms. They can afford to deny culpability and play a waiting game.

By suing, I've forfeited the "$1.8 million average award" for a death claim I could have collected under the fund. Nor do I have any illusions about winning money in my suit. What I do know is I owe it to my husband, whose death I believe could have been avoided, to see that all of those responsible are held accountable. If we don't get answers to what went wrong, there will be a next time. And instead of 3,000 dead, it will be 10,000. What will Congress do then?

So I say to Congress, big business and everyone who conspired to divert attention from government and private-sector failures: My husband's life was priceless, and I will not let his death be meaningless. My silence cannot be bought.

9/11 widow known for activism killed in Buffalo crash
WASHINGTON (AP) — One of the victims of the Buffalo commuter plane crash, Beverly Eckert, was a Sept. 11 widow who put her never-ending grief to good use to make the country safer.

President Obama, speaking in the White House's East Room, said Eckert "was an inspiration to me and to so many others, and I pray that her family finds peace and comfort in the hard days ahead."

A week before her death, Eckert met with Obama at the White House as part of a group of 9/11 families and relatives of those killed in the bombing of the USS Cole, discussing how the new administration would handle terror suspects.

Eckert was flying to Buffalo Thursday night to celebrate what would have been her husband Sean Rooney's 58th birthday.

When he died in the World Trade Center, she became one of the most visible, tearful faces in the aftermath of the terror attacks.

Carol Ashley, whose daughter died at the World Trade Center, said the grim details of Eckert's death are particularly painful to Eckert's friends among 9/11 families.

"The fact that it was a plane crash, it was fire, it was reminiscent of 9/11 that way, that's just very difficult," said Ashley, a retired schoolteacher from Long Island.

She carried that grief to Congress as she tried to make the government do a better job protecting its citizens from terrorism.

Her husband worked at Aon Corp., a risk management firm, at the 98th floor of the south tower.

Eckert would cry when she told the story about how her husband — who was her high school sweetheart — called her on the morning of the attacks, and told her he loved her just before there was a loud explosion and nothing more.

She became part of a small group of Sept. 11 widows, mothers, and children who became amateur lobbyists, ultimately forcing lawmakers in 2004 to pass sweeping reforms of the U.S. intelligence apparatus.

They spent months walking the halls of Congress. All of the women were grieving, but Eckert seemed unable or uninterested in holding back her tears.

When it was over and they'd won passage of the intelligence reform law, Eckert vowed to quit her high-profile role "cold turkey." All she wanted, she said, was to go home, buy groceries, and return to something like a regular life.

"I did all of this for Sean's memory, I did it for him," she said, crying again. "There is a euphoria in knowing that we reached the top of the hill. ... I just wanted Sean to come home from work. Maybe now, someone else's Sean will get to come home."

Eckert was flying to her hometown Thursday night when the plane crashed on approach to the Buffalo airport.

After the 2001 attacks, she co-chaired the 9/11 Family Steering Committee, a group of activists devoted to exposing government failures that led up to the 2001 attacks, and fixing them.

She pushed for a 9/11 Commission. She pushed the Bush administration to provide more information to the commission. And when the commission's work was over, she pushed Congress to adopt their recommendations.

For Eckert, the public role was not easy.

One night after a long day at Congress, she found herself in the New York City train station, without a connecting train to her home in Stamford, Connecticut.

"We slept in the train station. We had no place else to go. That's when you look at yourself and say, 'What am I doing? How can we possibly get this done?'."

As Congress hemmed and hawed, Eckert vowed to sleep there, too, if it would get the law passed.

After the law passed, Eckert turned her energies to Habitat for Humanity, helping build homes for low-income families.

"I'm in shock, I just can't believe it," said Carie Lemack, whose mother died Sept. 11 on one of the hijacked planes. "Beverly had a can-do attitude about everything, and she never gave up."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

The crash that killed Eckert:
Investigators say they are gathering pieces of the commuter plane that crashed into a home near Buffalo Thursday, killing all 49 people aboard and one person on the ground.

Workers also had begun the somber task of removing the remains of the victims.

It could take days to recover all human remains from the plot of land where a single-family home stood before Continental Connection Flight 3407 hit it late Thursday, National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Steve Chealander said. "We're very sensitive to the families," he said.

Experts were analyzing data from the black boxes, including statements by crewmembers about a buildup of ice on the wings and windshield of the plane, Chealander said.

"We're in the very early stages of the investigation," he said. "The icing and other things are just preliminary focuses."

But recovery of the bodies will take priority over the investigation, Chealander added.

The plane struck a house and burst into flames, killing 50 people. It was the first fatal accident on a U.S. passenger flight since Aug. 27, 2006, ending the longest period on record without a death.

As the pilots descended from 16,000 to 11,000 feet, they discussed the ice that was forming on the plane, according to preliminary information from the plane's cockpit recorder.

Ice can trigger a plane to rapidly go out of control, but it is too early to say for sure what caused the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 to plunge to the ground as it was about six miles from Buffalo Niagra International Airport. The crew had switched on the plane's deicing system, said National Transportation Safety Board member Steven Chealander. The anti-icing system should have protected it from ice.

The crash Thursday night killed 44 passengers, an off-duty pilot, four crewmembers and a man in a house that the plane hit.

The Colgain Air flight — which was flying under contract with Continental — went out of control suddenly and apparently without warning, Chealander said. The pilots were approaching the airport from the northeast and had lowered the landing gear.

About 45 seconds before the plane crashed, the pilots extended the plane's flaps, devices that expand the size of the wing so that a plane can safely slow down for landing. "Within seconds," Chealander said, the plane went out of control.

He said it rolled from side to side and pitched up and down before crashing.

The NTSB has investigated other accidents in which the use of flaps triggered a sudden loss of control after ice built up on the tail.

A British Aerospace Jetstream 31 nearly crashed in Beckley, W.V., on Jan. 30, 1991, after the flaps were extended, according to an NTSB report. When ice forms on the tail, it can cause a plane to dive suddenly. Extending flaps can trigger such a dive, the NTSB ruled in the case.

Meanwhile, investigators on Friday were beginning to move into the crash scene. The massive fire that erupted in the suburban neighborhood of Clarence Center, N.Y, was still smoldering Friday, hampering efforts to examine the scene. The NTSB recovered the plane's two black box recorders, a flight data recorder and a cockpit sound recorder, which arrived at noon at headquarters in Washington, D.C. Chealander said both were in excellent condition.

"The whole sky was lit up orange," said Bob Dworak, who lives less than a mile from the crash site. "All the sudden, there was a big bang, and the house shook."

Flight 3407 had left Newark and was about 6 miles from Buffalo when it plummeted at about 10:20 p.m. Colgan Air is a subsidiary of the commuter airline conglomerate Pinnacle Airlines.

There was no distress call, according to a recording of air traffic communications captured by the website

"This is a tragic day in the history of New York," said New York Gov. David Paterson at a press conference after he flew to the scene Friday morning. Paterson had already visited with some of the families of the victims.

"We are aware of the great loss of life," he said. "It's very hard to speak to those family members."

The plane, known most commonly as a Dash 8, is an updated version of the popular deHavilland Canada propeller plane.

The weather at the time was light snow and the temperatures were near freezing, according to the airport's weather reporting station.

Pilots arriving at Buffalo reported that their planes were picking up ice, according to recordings of air traffic communications. "We've been getting ice since 20 miles south of the airport," one said shortly after the crash.

Aircraft have anti-icing systems to keep dangerous ice from forming.

Laurie Bennett, a special agent with the FBI who is helping with the investigation, said they have not ruled out that the crash could be a criminal act because they haven't been able to examine the site.

One person in the home was killed, and two others inside escaped with minor injuries. Among the 49 passengers killed was a woman whose husband died in the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A fellow 9/11 activist said Beverly Eckert was heading to Buffalo for a celebration of what would have been her husband's 58th birthday.

Eckert was at the White House when Obama recently met with families of 9/11 victims. "She was an inspiration to me and so many others ... I pray that her family finds peace and comfort in the days ahead," Obama said.

The plane "basically dove right into the top of the house," said Clarence emergency control director, calling it "clearly a direct hit."

"It's remarkable that it only took one house," Erie County Emergency Coordinator David Bissonette said. "As devastating as it was, it could've easily wiped out that entire neighborhood on a strafing run type of thing."

Erie County Executive Chris Collins said the house that was hit was next to a firehouse, allowing rescuers to arrive in seconds.

"The firefighters were on that scene immediately, attempting to rescue anyone who could have been rescued," Collins said. "What I've been told is that they got as close to the plane as they could. They were shouting out to see if there were any survivors on the plane. Truly a very heroic effort."

While residents of the neighborhood where the plane went down were used to planes rumbling overhead, witnesses said this one sounded louder than usual, sputtered and made some odd noises.

Neighbor David Luce said he and his wife were working on their computers when they heard the plane come in low.

"It didn't sound normal," he said. "We heard it for a few seconds, then it stopped, then a couple of seconds later was this tremendous explosion."

Dworak drove to the site after hearing the crash, and "all we were seeing was 50 to 100 foot flames and a pile of rubble on the ground. It looked like the house just got destroyed the instant it got hit."

Clarence Town Supervisor Scott Bylewski, who lives about a half-mile from the crash site, said he heard "what sounded like a door slamming. I looked outside and could see that the sky was red."

One of the survivors from the house, Karen Wielinski, 57, told WBEN-AM that she was watching TV in the family room when she heard a noise. She said her daughter, 22-year-old Jill, who also survived, was watching TV in another part of the house.

"Planes do go over our house, but this one just sounded really different, louder, and I thought to myself, 'If that's a plane, it's going to hit something,'" she told the station. "The next thing I knew the ceiling was on me."

She said she and her daughter escaped in their socks. "I was panicking a little but trying to stay cool," she said. "I happened to notice a little light on the right of me. I shouted first in case anybody was out there. Then I just kind of pushed what was on top of me off and crawled out the hole. ... The back of the house was gone, the fire had started. I could see the wing of the plane."

She said she hadn't been told the fate of her husband, Doug, but added: "He was a good person, loved his family."

The last fatal crash was Aug. 27, 2006, when 49 people were killed after a Comair commuter jet attempted to take off on the wrong runway, clipped a line of trees and burst into flames in Lexington.

Houston-based Continental Airlines issued a statement saying that preliminary information showed the plane carried 44 passengers and a crew of four. The airline later said an off-duty pilot was also on the plane.

About 30 relatives and others who arrived at the airport in the overnight hours were escorted into a private area and then taken by bus to a senior citizens center in the neighboring town of Cheektowaga, where counselors and representatives from Continental waited to help.

"At this time, the full resources of Colgan Air's accident response team are being mobilized and will be devoted to cooperating with all authorities responding to the accident and to contacting family members and providing assistance to them," the statement said.

"Continental extends its deepest sympathy to the family members and loved ones of those involved in this accident," said Larry Kellner, chairman and CEO of Continental Airlines, in a later statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the family members and loved ones of those involved in the Flight 3407 tragedy."

Manassas, Va.-based Colgan Air said in a statement that airline personnel and local authorities were working to confirm the number of people on board and their identities.

Chris Kausner, believing his sister was on the plane, rushed to a hastily established command center after calling his vacationing mother in Florida to break the news.

"To tell you the truth, I heard my mother make a noise on the phone that I've never heard before. So not good, not good," he told reporters.

Clarence is a growing eastern suburb of Buffalo, largely residential but with rural stretches. The crash site is a street of closely spaced, older, single-family homes that apparently back up to wooded area.

The crash came less than a month after a US Airways pilot guided his crippled plane to a landing in the Hudson River off Manhattan, saving the lives of all 155 people aboard. Birds had apparently disabled both its engines.

On Dec. 20, a Continental Airlines plane veered off a runway and slid into a snowy field at the Denver airport, injuring 38 people.

Continental's release said relatives and friends of those on Flight 3407 who wanted to give or receive information about those on board could telephone a special family assistance number, 1-800-621-3263.

Contributing: The Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle; Associated Press