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.

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