25 December 2010

Beverly's Christmases Past

For someone who lives life with enthusiastic joy, who relishes celebrating with loved ones, who thrives on creating beautiful things for others, Christmas cannot come sooner each year. When Beverly and I spoke about her early years, she remembered to me Christmases past, each story lighting her face and animating her voice. There was the cardboard fireplace set up each year by her father, so Santa would have a ready entryway into the Eckert house. And the raucous holiday parties, the kids fueled by cookies and chips and bottles of pop cooled in a basement sink filled with ice. There were cherished presents, remembered forever, like a favorite doll, a trusty bike, a handy wagon. Always, there was music, loved ones gathered around the piano, singing carols in a close and familiar harmony tuned finely from years of practice.

One Christmas, Beverly put her artistic talents to full use, creating with her hands a set of Victorian carolers for her sisters' families, each family member carefully assembled -- from top hats and shawls, faces formed from clay, hair snipped from a reluctant Sean and others, and clothing and shoes painstakingly fitted together. Love is the things you do, you make, you pass along -- at Christmastime and all the year through. The group in the photo is the one Beverly made for her sister Karen and her family. Their heads are perpetually tilted up, singing in unison a familiar carol, just as Beverly and her loved ones used to do.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

20 December 2010

Rosemary Auricchio Rooney, July 12, 1924 - December 13, 2010

The Sean Rooney that Beverly Eckert had fallen in love with was once a small boy who doted on his mother, Rosemary. So close was the boy to his mother that on one occasion, when he was asked to sit on the steps of the family house for a few seconds for a photo, he began to whimper because he could not be close enough at that moment to his mama. His sour expression is caught for eternity in the snap of that camera's shutter.

Rosemary Rooney told me this story with a sense of pride when I visited with her and with some of Sean's siblings in Buffalo in October, and she showed me that photo. She clearly relished the closeness she shared with the young Sean, and this closeness lasted until the very end of his life, on September 11, 2001.

And as Beverly grew to love Sean in the months after they met, she also grew to love Rosemary, who opened her house and her heart to her at a time when openness and warmth were in short supply on the home front for Beverly. In the Rooney household, Beverly was charmed by the relaxed, lively and generous spirit of a family in which good food was shared at the dinner table, along with large helpings of love, good humor and mutual respect between each child and parent. Beverly told me how loving and gregarious Rosemary was, what an easy, informal and good-hearted relationship she had with Sean and her other children.

Rosemary Rooney passed away on December 13 at her home, among children she loved so dearly. News of a grave illness came out of the blue a few weeks previous, and so her family had time to prepare for the inevitable goodbyes. They had a chance, a welcome, precious time to return a small portion of the great mountain of love she had doled out during her long life to Sean and Beverly and all her children and grandchildren and others close to hear large and generous heart.

The departure of every soul from this sweet earth is different. We never know whether there will be time to say goodbye to those who hold a part of our hearts. Best, then, to cherish the ones we love each day, so they always know, no matter what happens, how much they mean to us.

16 November 2010

Back to Buffalo, Part 4

Beverly had close friends going back to her grade school years in Buffalo, and I had the good fortune to speak with two of them: Kathleen DeLaney and Carol Bauda. They offered some wonderful memories of Beverly during her school days. Kathleen and Carol told stories of a Bev who, in addition to being a stalwart and big-hearted friend, was the instigator of pranks, a skilled athlete, an articulate and intelligent public speaker, a poet and writer, and an artist who revelled in the free atmosphere of the art room in Sacred Heart Academy. Here, the girls could find refuge from the strictures of the rest of the school, and listen to records, gossip, dream, and let their creative juices flow sitting at their easels.

The stories I was told will help me paint an accurate portrait of a life lived fully and well.

12 November 2010

Back to Buffalo, Part 3

During my visit to Buffalo, I was guided to some of the places that were important in the life of Sean Rooney by his sister, Cynthia Blest. Certainly a formative influence on Sean's life were his years at Canisius High School. In the photo on the right, Cynthia is pointing to Sean's portrait in the Class of 1969 picture, which hangs in a large room outside the auditorium/gym. In a number of media accounts, including this article in the New York Times, Canisius is given as the place where Sean and Beverly first met at a dance. So I was eager to see the gymnasium, where such dances were held. But after speaking with several people, I learned that the 16-year-olds actually met at a dance at another school. (You can read the book to find out which one!)

Another place I was taken to was the first house in which Beverly and Sean lived. Here began a tradition of grand nest-feathering, with Sean taking the lead and Beverly ably assisting in home renovation projects large and small. The fine wooden beams that Sean had created in the kitchen were still there.

09 November 2010

Back to Buffalo, Part 2

I went to Buffalo in search of stories from the early lives of Beverly and Sean, and I returned from my trip with plenty of them. I was especially keen on getting details about the young Sean Rooney, because I had only gotten a few vignettes from Beverly. On one sunny day, Sean's sister, Cynthia Blest, guided me around the parts of Buffalo that had been touched by Sean.

This is the house on Dorchester Road the Rooney family lived in when Sean was growing up. Beverly had told me the story about the time Sean had dismantled a 1951 MG TD in the driveway when he was a teenager, and rebuilt it piece-by-piece. And Cynthia recounted with a smile an episode involving Sean, some gin-and-tonics, and a botched repair job on the front steps. It was in the kitchen of this house, helping his mother, Rosemary, that Sean absorbed the lessons of how food and love could combine in magical ways. Many times it is the lessons we learn when we are young that carry us through in the years to come.

08 November 2010

Back to Buffalo, Part 1

I drove up to Buffalo in October to continue my research for the book. I focused on gathering information about Beverly and Sean during their early years, speaking with their friends and relatives, and visiting places that were important in their lives.

Karen Eckert kindly shared her memories of Beverly, and guided me around Buffalo. One of the places we visited was Forest Lawn Cemetery and Crematory, where the Eckert family placed a beautiful bronze plaque over Beverly's resting place. Karen said that she and the other siblings (Susan Bourque, Margot Eckert and Ray Eckert) had devoted a great deal of thought and care to the words on the plaque. It is a difficult thing to summarize in a short space the talents, accomplishments, spirit and love of an exceptional person. I think they succeeded:

Born May 29, 1951
Died February 12, 2009

In the crash of Continental Flight 3407
In Clarence Center, New York
Widow of her beloved high school sweetheart
Sean P. Rooney
Who died September 11, 2001
In the attack on the World Trade Center

Beverly was a tireless advocate for the families of the victims of 9/11
A leader in the establishment of the 9/11 Commission
And Co-founder of Voices of September 11th

A lover of beauty
A writer, an artist, a poet
A constant source of amazement and fun
Generous of spirit
Dedicated to her family and friends
And the principles of justice
She lived her life extraordinarily well

Devoted in love, Beverly and Sean are together now
"Happily Ever-Aftering"

"...The evening sky has deepened into darkness on a soft summer night. We are sitting on the stone step near the kitchen door, watching the fireflies rise in the backyard over the newly mowed lawn. Friends are expected for dinner. A steak is on the grill, a glass of wine in hand.... we are laughing.... we are content."

-Beverly Eckert-

23 August 2010

Beverly and the book and me: The birth of a collaboration

This somewhat improbable endeavor – a book about a 9/11 citizen activist by a Middle East scholar – came about because Beverly and I had so much in common. Our collaboration was born of shared interests, goals and even personalities. It makes sense, after all, that kindred spirits would work together well.

Had it not been for 9/11, our paths never would have crossed. But once I decided to write about the 9/11 Commission, our meeting was inevitable, because without the efforts of Beverly and other family members, the commission would never have been established. I interviewed Beverly for an article I wrote for the History News Network on the testimony of Richard Clarke before the commission. I had not known of her before then, but once I read about her life with Sean, her horrific ordeal with him on the telephone as he tried to escape from Tower Two, and eventually perished, I knew I wanted to tell her story, to make the whole experience of 9/11 personal and immediate to readers through her eyes.

After reading my HNN article, Beverly wrote in June 2004 that it had offered a perspective that was “really different” than those presented in the many other articles on the commission that she’d read. “You captured the drama and content of the testimony,” she said. Others had approached Beverly about doing a book, but they suggested that she do most of the writing. She turned them down, explaining that “I have too little time and energy right now for looking back, when there is so much to be dealt with in the present.”

As with many matters, when it came to deciding whether to get involved with producing a book, Beverly was deliberate and thoughtful. After I had broached the idea to her, she suggested I contact her again after a few months. During this time, she informed other members of the Family Steering Committee of my proposed book, and that I would be interested in getting in touch with them. None of them balked at the idea, but some told Beverly that the large number of media requests for interviews necessitated much greater selectivity on their part. She noted that “although the FSC members have been accessible before, I can't promise the same access now” since it was a very bust time. As for Beverly’s relatives and friends, she told me they were interested in the project and willing to contribute their recollections.

During the summer of 2004, we continued to be in touch, and during the course of our discussions, I had suggested that Beverly begin to keep a journal, to record her thoughts and actions for future reference. On July 4, 2004, she visited the memorial grove she had planted in Sean’s memory in the ocean side park where the couple had spent many a leisurely weekend, strolling, roller-blading, reading the Sunday New York Times. She placed a couple of American flags next to the plaque by the trees, she said, because “I felt it was something that I needed to do, given that Sean was killed because he was an American.” Beverly’s first journal entry described that gesture of love and remembrance.

Later in July, Beverly agreed participate in the book project. Her prime concern was accuracy. On a number of occasions she illustrated this sentiment by quoting Voltaire: “To the living, we owe respect. To the dead we owe only the truth.” She had no desire to dictate the content of the book, which she left to me. She trusted me to write an honest and accurate account of the people and events of 9/11 and afterward. She only wanted the opportunity to offer her version of events when the version of others differed, and to let me decide which was closer to the truth.

Beverly’s search for truth was what she owed to her beloved Sean. Mine is driven by the historian’s duty to present the past as it actually was. I’m confident that the people who matter the most – the readers of No Truer Hearts – will agree our shared quest will be yield something valuable and enduring.

03 August 2010

Flight 3401 family members celebrate hard-won airline safety reforms

Like their sister Beverly before them, Karen Eckert and Susan Bourque celebrated a legislative victory after many months of hard work in Washington's halls of political power. Karen, Susan and other family members and friends of the Continental Flight 3407 victims, as well as others supporting airline safety reforms, had been lobbying for for many months to press their cause. Yesterday President Obama signed legislation that would improve pilot training, address flight crew fatigue and other issues related to the crash of Flight 3407.

An article by Jerry Zremski of the Buffalo News summarized the reaction:

"At last it is official!" said Susan Bourque of East Aurora, who lost her sister, 9/11 activist Beverly Eckert, in the crash. "Today is my granddaughter Adriana's birthday. What a present -- not just for her but everyone who flies."

28 July 2010

Sculpting a book: from bare outline to fully formed story

When I am asked about the writing process, I like to use the analogy of a sculptor.

Just as a sculptor starts with sketches or small scale models, I began this project by making notes on the general structure of the book, following the main paths of Beverly Eckert's story. And just as a sculptor working in clay fashions a wire frame in the general shape of the final piece, I put together an outline listing the main parts, chapters, episodes of the story. To add texture and depth to the bare wire frame, the artist pinches off pieces of clay and smoothes them onto the frame, layer by layer, getting closer to the final design. As in all good works of non-fiction, the story told in No Truer Hearts is made up of facts, which I am drawing from interviews, emails, documents, articles, books, films, electronic media and other sources. I use these sources to add detail, insight and color to the basic outline, layer by layer, chapter by chapter, episode by episode. It is a process, in a way, of creative accretion, a gradual and deliberate adding on of color, shape, substance, soul.

In the end, there will be something that is both pleasing to the senses, and sturdy enough as an object of historical analysis to stand the test of time, a goal that Beverly and I both shared.

22 July 2010

Beverly Eckert and her sisters: citizen advocates fighting for the average American

Washington is awash in lobbyists.

Wealthy corporations and groups funnel rivers of cash to slick lawyers, former Congressmen and well-connected ex-government officials to grease the skids of special interest political influence. It is a story as old as politics itself, and too often it results in policies that benefit the rich and powerful rather than promoting the high ideal of government of the people, by the people and for the people.

That is why the story of Beverly Eckert and her fellow 9/11 family members is so compelling. Average citizens faced with an epic catastrophe responded by almost singlehandedly compelling the government to better protect its citizens. Without the commitment, skill, and persistence of the family members, the system that allowed 9/11 to happen would have continued to function for the most part in its old, dysfunctional way.

(And even after intelligence reforms were passed, the bureaucracy and private corporations have found new ways to put their interests above those of the nation, and once again make us all vulnerable to future attacks, as reported in a special Washington Post series this week.)

Now comes an update on the similar reform work by family members of Flight 3407, including Beverly's sister's Karen Eckert and Susan Bourque. In it, Associate Press reporter Joan Lowy describes exactly how this latest effective band of citizen advocates were able to convince members of Congress for the need to improve airline safety:

As a group, they have made more than 30 lobbying trips to Washington at their own expense over the past 17 months since the crash in Buffalo, N.Y., united them in grief — with a determination to try to fix what had gone wrong.

They've met with 88 senators or their staffs, and two dozen House members or their aides — many of them more than once. They've attended every congressional hearing with any connection to aviation safety. They've watched from the House and Senate visitor galleries as lawmakers debated reforms, an unmistakable island of red sweaters, ties and jackets — their chosen color — with photos of their loved ones pinned to their chests.

In March, when Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., threatened to block a vote on the bill because he objected to a labor provision affecting FedEx Corp., which is headquartered in his state, about 20 family members descended on his office. In a tense meeting with Corker's chief of staff, they demanded he explain why the senator was putting the interests of a company ahead of safety. They held out pictures of the loved ones they'd lost, told of the children who would grow up without fathers.

Ten minutes after the meeting ended, family members were still standing outside Corker's office trying to decide what to do next when an aide called them back in to tell them Corker had reached a compromise with Democratic leaders. The threat to block the bill had been dropped for the moment. Family members don't take credit for Corker's decision, but they say they believe their actions helped.

Starting up again, after an unexpected break

My work on this blog, as well as on the book, ground to an unexpected halt some months ago because I suffered a deep personal crisis from which I am at last recovering. For a while, I was unable to work, to function normally, because my 25-year marriage had broken apart.

From now on, though, I will redouble my efforts and push hard to complete this endeavor, to keep my promise to Beverly. The blog will come alive, and each day the pages of the manuscript will increase. This story will be told.

I feel I must apologize, for this book has been much delayed, for a variety of reasons. But the days of delays are over. In the coming days you will read about how this project arose, what Beverly's thoughts were about it, and how I will go about making our dream a reality.

Feel free to contact me with questions, suggestions and information about Beverly's life, her 9/11 reform work, and the Family Steering Committee. I'm eager to get back on track and to organize this mountain of material into the 9/11 story everyone will want to read. Onward!

22 February 2010

A Year after the Crash of Flight 3407: A Walk to Remember, A Walk to Promote Airline Safety

On February 12, 2009, Continental Flight 3407 fell from the sky onto a house in Clarence Center, NY, extinguishing 51 lives. One year later, those touched by the tragedy began a day of remembrance at the snow-covered crash site on Long Street, now a peaceful plot of land. They gathered to recall their loved ones with fondness and joy, and walked the ten miles from Clarence Center to Buffalo Niagara International Airport, completing the journey on behalf of those who perished that awful, snowy night. But in addition to keeping bright the memories of those lost lives, the walkers and many onlookers in neighborhoods along the way were also expressing support for the aviation safety reforms that had yet to be implemented by the FAA and Congress, reforms meant to prevent such calamities as that which befell the victims of Flight 3407.

Some of Beverly Eckert’s relatives and friends gathered that morning along with many others at the Clarence Center Fire Hall, whose volunteers were first on the scene of the crash, just 750 feet away. Beverly’s sisters Karen Eckert and Susan Bourque were there. They had spent much of the previous year following closely the official crash investigation and pushing for solutions to the many problems that contributed to the crash, which was operated by regional carrier Colgan Air. Karen and Susan are working with others who became active in promoting airline safety after the crash took their loved ones, and this group was also involved in planning the day’s events. Laurin Maurer had died in the crash, and her father, Scott, and her boyfriend, Kevin Kuwik were active in this group, Families of Continental Flight 3407. But much of the work of planning and putting on the day’s events was done by John Kausner, who lost his daughter, Ellyce (Elly to all). Kausner and his family spent many hours finding local businesses to donate supplies and facilities, coordinating with local jurisdictions to provide safety on the roads, and publicizing not just the event, but the cause of airline safety. Kausner’s daughter, Laura Kausner Voigt, had founded a group called Elly’s Angel’s, whose members handed out red scarves and ribbons to the Flight 3407 family members at the fire hall before the walk, and assisted in many ways during the events of the day.

The day’s events began with the placing of a simple wreath of red and white carnations on a wire stand in the snow at the center of the crash site. Some family members offered impromptu additions to the program. Patrick Pettys, who lost his sister Mary, stood next to the wreath, stretched his arms out to the sides, and fell back into the snow to make a snow angel to symbolize his sister. Someone else then scattered red rose petals on the crash site. And then the walkers walked.

Out front of the procession was Jeffrey Skiles, co-pilot of US Airways Flight 1549, which dramatically ditched in the Hudson River with no loss of life about a month before the crash of flight 3407. Skiles had been working with Families of Flight 3407 in past months because he saw the pressing need to improve regional airline safety through such measures as better pilot training and fatigue management. Skiles told the University at Buffalo’s student newspaper: “I’ve made real friendships here with these people and anybody who knows me knows I do not like to be called a hero,” Skiles said. “People call me a hero – I am not. These people are. You are all my heroes, you will always be my heroes.”

Beverly's sister Margot had decided to undertake this journey in a pair of warm, black boots. They were not quite her size, but because they had belonged to Beverly, she felt it would be meaningful to walk them along this special route.

No one knew quite what to expect along the way. The organizers had initially envisioned a simple affair with just a few family members walking the symbolic path to Flight 3407's destination. But once others heard about the project, it snowballed, so to speak. Not just family members and friends, but members of the community, business leaders and others wanted to participate. And so a simple commemoration grew to be a community-wide call for aviation safety.

Hundreds of people participated in one way or another. There were those who walked, those who helped, and there were many hundreds along the route who waved, held up signs, or otherwise showed their support. About the halfway mark, a group of school children stood in a line along the route and offered their upraised hands to high-five the walkers. "They really invigorated everyone, " said Karen afterward. "The heartwarming thing was that you saw so much support from the community," she added, noting that the Public Broadcasting Service's Frontline series had just aired an excellent program called "Flying Cheap." The hour-long program examined the issue of regional airline safety lapses, with particular attention to the case of Flight 3407. Karen, Susan and other Flight 3407 family members had appeared on the program. It's no surprise that the program was closely followed by the Buffalo-area viewing audience, and that their awareness of the need for airline safety reform was high, said Karen.

There was great relief at the end of the walk. For some, it was taxing both physically and emotionally. "I walked to the point of exhaustion that day too," said Margo Eckert, "the ache in my legs matching the ache in my heart. How can it be that I miss her more now?"

At a press conference at the airport, there were words of gratitude, love and encouragement from family members and political officials. Sen. Charles Schumer had worked with the family members through the year on their safety reform efforts, and had glowing words, greeted by enthusiastic applause. “I am honored and humbled to be in the presence of these families and I pledge in every way to see that their goal – to make sure this never happens again by passing sensible laws and applying the same laws that we apply to the big, commercial airliners, to the commuter airlines – becomes the law of this land” Schumer said.

At 8:30 p.m. there was a ceremony at the Clarence Town Hall where the first responders presented a slide show of their efforts that terrible night, and where family members could offer their words of thanks. The final event of the long day brought those touched by the tragedy back to the plot on Long Street where so many loved ones perished. In the darkness and cold and lightly sprinkling snow they came bearing candles, lit luminarias bearing the names of the victims arranged on the cold, hallowed ground in the shape of a large, looped ribbon as Karen recited the names of the departed, slowly, solemnly. At the moment of the crash, at 10:17 p.m., church bells from near and far began to peal 51 times, but their song was interrupted by the loud roar of a plane flying directly above the crash site.

Margot Eckert said it was the last plane she heard that evening in the flight path. "Snow was falling," she added, "those big flakes, like tears."

Karen later said that in the days leading up to the anniversary, and on the day of the walk itself, she could hear Beverly's voice in her head, saying, "Do the right thing... Make sure this won’t happen again.. I’m gone; you can’t bring me back, but you can do something... It’s important, and the anniversary is an important time to call attention to the fact that things still have to be done..."

So often in life we don't listen hard enough to the voices of the ones we love. But if their message is strong and true, their words will survive even death.

12 February 2010

Such joy, such life

I think of Beverly every day.

One year ago, her life ended, but her story was carried on by those whose lives she touched. The story of the jump-roping, hop-scotching sister; the high school poet/artist/basketball player; the strong-handed potter; the assured insurance executive; the partner-for-life of her beloved Sean; generous and exuberant friend and neighbor. And in the final chapter of her life: volunteer and citizen-activist extraordinaire.

And so we will remember Beverly in our own ways. When she remembered Sean, it was with gratitude for their life together, and with a sense of the joy he brought to her life and the lives of others. Today I want to remember Beverly with that same sense of joy. It’s not a difficult thing to do. Looking at the smile on her face puts a smile on mine. The gusto with which she lived her life inspires me to skip, dance and immerse myself in the wonder of something so simple as a setting sun.

Think of Beverly and the snow! A born and bred Buffalo gal, she loved the snow, and missed it when she wintered away from the cold Northeast during her Caribbean cruises. And when she was home, she would immerse herself joyfully in the season. In December 2008 she wrote: “Holidays are a wonderful escape – recapturing the magic of childhood can be intoxicating, and who can resist snow, family gatherings and Christmas trees?” One wonderful wintery image in particular is etched in my memory: Beverly, head tilted back in a full-throated laugh, riding down the small hill in her backyard last January in the most unlikely of conveyances – the hull of a Sunfish sailboat! Just like a kid. “Instead of just storing it,” she wrote, “here’s something I discovered that you can do with a sailboat in wintertime. This is cutting-edge stuff – I just know it’s going to catch on!”

Think of Beverly on the water! One of her favorite ways to relax (“I love the serenity”) was to spend time in her kayak. And like everything else she did, Beverly jumped in with both feet. In the summer of 2004, she wrote: “Kayaking yesterday turned out to be more exciting than I anticipated. One of my friends capsized, dumping herself and a full load of supplies into Long Island Sound. Luckily, we were still close to shore, but that meant we had a large audience of beachgoers, not to mention the eager services of the local lifeguard. Anyway, it was hard to get the kayak out of the water and drained because we couldn't stop laughing.” And other simple joys were never far from the surface of the water. In the autumn of 2008 she wrote: “While kayaking Sunday, I caught a turtle with my bare hands. A tiny turtle, but nonetheless untamed by man until I came along.”

Such joy, such life. Such a joyous life.