Tragedy of the 9/11 widow

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Beverly Eckert became a national heroine as leader of the 9/11 relatives. Yesterday it emerged she died in the Buffalo plane crash

Even as Beverly Eckert boarded Flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo, she knew she still had not shed the burden that came with the death of her husband on 11 September 2001.

The weekend was to be one more spent honouring his memory; days before, she had met Barack Obama at the White House as a 9/11 widow. Now Ms Eckert herself, who was 50, is gone, like her husband, consumed by horrifying fire. The plane, a Dash 8 flying under the livery of Continental Connection, dropped from the clouds amid icy conditions just seven miles short of Buffalo airport, killing all 49 people on board and one on the ground.

There is equality in death – every life on board was as precious as the other. But the loss of Ms Eckert, who emerged after 9/11 as a leader among relatives and friends of victims demanding action and explanations from Washington, added awful poignancy to a day of national tragedy, even for Mr Obama.

"Tragic events such as these remind us of the fragility of life and the value of every single day," Mr Obama said in televised remarks. "One person who understood that well was Beverly Eckert, who was on that flight and who I met with just a few days ago. You see, Beverly lost her husband on 9/11 and became a tireless advocate for those families whose lives were forever changed on that September day."

It was in late 2004 that Ms Eckert vowed at last to try to leave behind the pain of losing her husband, Sean Rooney, and rediscover the old groove of ordinary life at home in Stamford, Connecticut, about 40 miles from New York. After all, just about every moment until then had been dedicated to toiling for what she thought was the right thing – for the country, for herself and, above all, for Sean.

Tears would always flow when she was asked of the precise circumstances of her husband's death on that clear blue morning almost eight years ago. Mr Rooney was an employee of Aon, a risk assessment company in the insurance business, and worked on the 98th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Centre. He had been Beverly's high school sweetheart.

For reasons she could never really know, he telephoned that morning simply to remind her that he loved her. Ms Eckert then heard a loud explosion precisely at the moment that the jet airliner commandeered by al-Qa'ida terrorists ploughed into the glass and steel heights of the building. The line went dead and the two were never to speak to one another again.

Among friends and colleagues grieving for Beverly yesterday was Carol Ashley, whose daughter died in the Twin Towers. The circumstances of her death made it even worse, Ms Ashley offered. "The fact that it was a plane crash, it was fire, it was reminiscent of 9/11 that way, that's just very difficult," she said.

Ms Eckert was the co-chairperson of Voices of September 11, a group of spouses, children and friends of 9/11 victims which had formed to make sure such an attack on America could not happen again – and hold a dysfunctional American government, at least as far as intelligence gathering went, to account.

With other members of the group, Ms Eckert made repeated trips to Washington to lobby Congress first to establish an investigating commission into the intelligence failures that contributed to the 9/11 attacks and then to translate its main findings into legislation to reform intelligence gathering.

It was a hard and very long slog, but both things happened.

She was fond of recalling how, one day, she was travelling back to Connecticut late in the evening only to find that the last train to Stamford had left already. She and a friend slept on the floor of Grand Central Terminal. "We had no place else to go," she would remark some time later. "That's when you look at yourself and say, 'What am I doing? How can we possibly get this done?'"

But get it done she did and Ms Eckert remained well known as one of the widows who spurred a reluctant Washington into action. "I did all of this for Sean's memory, I did it for him," she once explained. "I just wanted Sean to come home from work. Maybe now, someone else's Sean will get to come home."

It was no surprise, therefore, that when Mr Obama invited a group of relatives of victims of the 9/11 attacks and the bombing of the USS Cole to the White House a little more than a week ago to discuss his ideas for combating terrorism, the name Beverly Eckert would be among them.

Like the trip to Washington, the visit to Buffalo was a testament to the difficulties Ms Eckert faced in trying to let go of the pain she had been enduring. The duties to her husband never really ended. She was flying north first to help celebrate what would have been Sean's 58th birthday with friends and second to present a scholarship in her husband's name at a Buffalo high school.

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