28 March 2017

Beverly Eckert's voice, sometimes hoarse from overwork, was always heard

Beverly Eckert was many things. After 9/11 she became an activist, an organizer, a leader, a spokesperson, a lobbyist, a builder of memorials and a conscience for the country. Sometimes her audience was worldwide, televised and spread through all manner of other media. Other times her message was delivered one-on-one.

In September 2004, Beverly was in Washington, DC to lobbying on behalf of intelligence reform bills that grew out of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. She shared a taxi with a stranger during the visit, and she told him about her work, her voice hoarse from all the speaking she was doing. A day later, the stranger sent Beverly an email.

Last night we just met in a shared cab in DC. You are the first victim of 911 that I have ever met. Living in Seattle and being untouched by that horrible day insulated me from the pain you have suffered and prevented me from understanding the urgency you feel about putting changes in place as soon as possible.
I am very sorry for your loss and grateful for the effort you are putting forth the make this country safer for me and my family. Just wanted to say thanks... Godspeed. (And give that voice a rest!!!)

For many Americans, 9/11 was not of immediate concern, the need for reforms an abstraction. Beverly and the other family members made the tragedy real. Their message resonated around the world, and it made a difference in the end.

24 March 2017

When the 'best among us' chose the heroic route: 9/11 family members get a big 'Thank you'

There was a sense of accomplishment and relief after the 9/11 Commission's final report was released on July 22, 2004 to the world, but Beverly Eckert and the other family members did not take time to rest. Their work was only half done until the commission's recommendations were adopted.

So they immediately set their sights on this next goal.

This involved the tough task of convincing members of Congress to formulate laws and pass them. On August 3, 2004, Beverly, Sally Regenhard and Robin Wiener testified before the House Government Reform Committee, adding their passionate and firm voices to the call for widespread changes. Many Americans viewed the hearing on television and were moved by the words of the family members. Here's an email from one woman from New York City. Her sense of disillusionment with politicians rings true even today. But her gratitude shines through.

Dear wonderful ladies,
I have lost so much faith in this country, this city, and those who are in power. I watched the DNC [Democratic National Convention] and that gave me a small amount of hope as I think that Kerry and Edwards are decent, thoughtful and intelligent men. But, my real hope for this country came when I watched your testimony before the committee. 
I have long been in awe of all of the family members and their ability to turn horror to good, but today I saw that the members of Congress see you as the only hope to get this country going in the right direction. What an awesome responsibility to have placed upon you, but I know that you are equal to these challenges.
When Ms. Eckert said to the committee that this was their hour to take a place in history and to do the right thing, I was wondering if the three of you (and the other family members) were aware that this was something that you did long ago. You chose the heroic route and you have traveled it with courage and integrity and love -- for your loved ones who so needlessly were lost and for your country and for people like me that just need to know that there is something left in the world that is right, true and full of integrity (without bulshit).
I hope that God will bless you and grace you in all that you do. I hope that you find some relief from your grief, although I know how hard that is. I was sobbing as I witnessed your pain and courage. I hope that you know that you represent the good and decent part of this nation -- you really are the best among us. Thank You.

22 March 2017

On a roll with the writing and research of No Truer Hearts, then..

You never know what you will find as you are doing the donkey work of research. Even though it involves digging for sources and reading just one page at a time, it is heavy lifting, believe me. You end up going through thousands and thousands of pages -- articles, letters, reports, statements, emails -- most of them dull and useless to your project. Dead weight piled high on your desk.

Then you strike gold.

It may be a quote that perfectly captures a moment in time. Or you might stumble across a fact no one in the world has ever published. The nuggets come rarely, but come they do, which is what keeps you going. These are the building blocks for your story. And you keep on slogging because of those unexpected jolts, the way that the words on a piece of paper can make you catch your breath in shock, chuckle quietly or send you searching for a tissue to wipe the tears from your eyes.

My eyes are dry now, but I had to stand up a few minutes ago from my current session of donkey work. It is March 22, 2017 and I am poring over the boxes of paper that Beverly Eckert had gathered to highlight some of her struggles to make the country safer after 9/11. These papers mostly deal with her work with other family members on the 9/11 Commission. They chronicle the long and difficult struggle to establish the commission, make sure its work was thorough and honest, and that its recommendations would change the government so that another attack would not leave in its wake another group of grieving family members like them.

Page after page after page. Then I pick up document 95. (Beverly had numbered the documents with colored Post-its.) It is an article I’d written long ago, in 2004, about the commission hearing where I first met Beverly, where our collaboration began. The article describes the hearing at which counter terrorism official Richard Clarke began his testimony dramatically by apologizing to the family members. “Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you.”

It gives me goosebumps to go back to that moment. And I think that a big reason that Beverly agreed to allow me to tell her story was that article. I think I captured an emotional turning point for the family members that most journalists missed. A couple of days ago, I found footage of the hearing on C-Span and watched the first few minutes, hoping to gather new insights after all these years. And sure enough, there was Beverly, in the second row behind Clark. And just after he apologized the camera panning, but it’s possible to see her right hand rising to her face -- wiping a tear? covering her mouth? Even in the fuzzy pixels it’s clear to see she was moved.

As soon as the hearing was gaveled to a close, family members rushed up to Clark, something that never happened with other witnesses. Catharsis. Beverly was second to grab his hand firmly and shake it. Afterword, she told me that she said to him: “I forgive you.”

In my article, I wrote that the family members had been craving honesty, openness and accountability from the hearings, and “Clarke was the one who gave this simple gift to them.”
What set me off though, what had me blowing my nose and wiping my eyes, was the tiny notation at the top of the printout of the article, in Beverly’s unmistakable crabbed handwriting: “A simple gift.”

16 May 2016

Look! I just found a small gem of a source on Beverly's work in Slidell, Louisiana

The more you dig, the more you find. Today's treasure is this lovely slideshow of Beverly's time with her Habitat for Humanity colleagues in Slidell, Louisiana. I came across it while doing some photo research for No Truer Hearts. I had already seen some of these wonderful photos, taken by New Orleans photographer Matthew Hinton, but in this slideshow I saw others that were new to me and I heard Beverly's voice describing her brief time in this town just north of New Orleans.

At the end of the slideshow, Beverly summed up why she was doing what she was doing.

And it’s really all about… to me, it’s about people. [After 9/11] there was so much outreach to the families, and the country changed a lot. But I think we all need to do our part not to make it a more evil place, but a less evil place. Because I truly believe that love conquers hate.

12 February 2016

February 12, 2009: Remembering another routine day that turned into a nightmare

February 12, 2009 was Beverly Eckert’s last day on this beautiful, sorrowful earth. I'll be putting forth a fuller account of the day in No Truer Hearts. What follows is a shorter version. It's a small reminder of her generosity of spirit, her kindness, and her desire to do good in the world to the very end.

Stamford, Connecticut

About 5:30 a.m.
Beverly Eckert rises and begins her day.

6:41 a.m.
Beverly sends an email to her sister, Karen Eckert, with the subject line “yes, please make the sauce”. In Buffalo three days later, Beverly and family members plan on celebrating Sean Rooney’s birthday with a dinner of homemade ravioli, one of the many dishes he used to make at such gatherings before his death on September 11, 2001.

7:45 a.m.
“pillow, bathrobe, hair products, humidifier” -- another email subject line. “Can you get these things out for me?” Beverly writes. “I’ll swing by your house around 9 before I go to my hotel.” Usually Beverly stays at Karen’s house when she’s visiting, and keeps a cache of necessities there so she doesn’t have to pack them. But on this occasion she decides to book a room at the Lord Amherst Hotel because one of Karen’s sons is home, and Beverly does not want to be a bother, even though Karen has told her it would not be.

Beverly walks to the the Julia Stark Elementary School to work with students who need help with reading and math. She’s been volunteering here two days a week, and has made warm connections with her students. When she’s done, she goes home with a manila envelope containing Valentine’s cards from the students. She places the envelope on her kitchen counter and finishes her preparations for the trip to Buffalo.

Beverly drives to Newark Liberty International Airport, a distance of about 60 miles, but along New York City metropolitan area roads notoriously congested. She hits traffic backups that make her worry she won’t make her flight. But she arrives in time to check in for Continental Connection Flight 3407 to Buffalo, which at the time is showing an on-time departure at 7:10 p.m.

“Newark! What are you doing in Newark?” Karen is taken aback when Beverly calls to say where her flight is departing from. On all the other flights she’s taken to Buffalo, Beverly’s flown jetBlue out of JFK. This time was different. She had gotten a free flight voucher for Continental that was about to expire, so she decided to use it.

As the time for departure approaches, Beverly tells Karen that it doesn’t look like the plane will leave on time. Karen talks about how the weather has been in Buffalo during the day, with “pebbly ice,” a consistency she had never seen before. “Oh no, not ice!” says Beverly. But Karen is quick to offer reassurance. “It’s not gonna be a problem because it’s pretty warm. It’s like 36 degrees,” she says. With temperatures hovering just above freezing, there was a little bit of everything that day -- snow, hail, rain and fog. The wintry mix would continue into the night.

7:45 p.m.
Continental Connection Flight 3407 finally pushes back from the gate, 35 minutes behind schedule. Bad weather in the region had cause many flight cancellations earlier, and now the taxiways were crowded with extra planes arriving and trying to depart. For the time being, Beverly and the other passengers sit and wait on a plane that is not moving.

8:24 p.m.
The captain finally makes an announcement: “Folks, from the flight deck, just to keep you updated… we’re gonna be sitting here just for a few more minutes. We did have some taxi delays out there obviously because of the weather. Planes are moving… Right now we’re about number twenty for takeoff.” He adds that it will take 40 to 45 minutes before the plane is airborne.

8:26 p.m.
The passengers are told they can use their phones, so Beverly calls Karen. “We’re on the runway,” she tells her. “They’re telling us the plane’s gonna take off about 9:10. That means by the time I get to your house it’s gonna be late. Just put my stuff on the porch -- all my stuff. You can go to bed.”

“Nooo! I’m not gonna go to bed. I’ll be here,” says Karen, adding that if the flight happens to arrive even later she’ll leave the porch light on to show she’s still up. In the meantime, Karen has packed the items Beverly requested in a black plastic bag and put it on the front porch.

8:41 p.m.
In the plane’s cockpit, the first officer is telling the captain she’s not feeling well. She had flown from her home in near Seattle to make this flight and now she had the symptoms of bad cold. “Well, this is one of those times that if I felt like this when I was at home there’s no way I would have come all the way out here...” she said.

8:52 p.m.
The captain makes an announcement: “Folks, from the flight deck: just to, uh, give you another update. We’re getting a little bit closer. We’re still about number ten for departure, and we’ll be airborne just, uh, shortly, and just to kind of, uh, pass on a little bit more information from, uh, the other pilots who have taken off earlier, uh, The turbulence has, uh, decreased, uh, quite a bit, but ,uh, there’s still gonna be some bumps on the climbout, so make sure those seatbelts are fastened tightly. Thanks.”

9:18 p.m.
Flight 3407 takes off.

10:08 p.m.
The first officers gets on the PA system: “It looks like at this time we’re ten maybe fifteen minutes outside of Buffalo. Weather in, uh, Buffalo is pretty foggy. Uh, snowing a little bit there. It’s not too terribly cold but, uh, at this time I’d like to make sure everybody remains in their seats so the flight attendants can prepare the cabin for arrival. Thank you.”

10:10 p.m.
The first officer is talking to the captain. “Is that ice on our windshield?” she says.
“Got it on my side. You don’t have yours?” he replies.
“Oh yeah... Oh, it’s lots of ice. [sniffles]”
“Oh yeah, that’s the most I’ve seen -- most ice I’ve seen on the leading edges in a long time. In a while, anyway, I should say.”
After a bit of conversation, the first officers continues, “I’ve never seen icing conditions. I’ve never de-iced. I’ve never seen any -- I’ve never experienced any of that. I don’t want to have to experience that and make those kinds of calls. You know, I’d’ve freaked out. I’d’ve, like, seen this much ice and thought: Oh my gosh, we were going to crash!”

10:16 p.m.
Landing gear down, airspeed 145 knots. The captain’s control stick shakes to warn that the plane’s low speed may cause a stall.
[plane pitches up, rolls to the left; the rolls to the right]
10:16:34 Captain: “Jesus Christ!”  [stick shaker starts again and continues]
10:16:37 First officer: “I put the flaps up.” Airspeed 100 knots.
[plane rolls to the left; then right; airplane nose down]
10:16:42 Captain:  [grunts] “*ther bear…”
10:16:45 First officer: “Should the gear be up?”
10:16:46 Captain: “Gear up... Oh, [expletive]!

10:16:51 Captain: “We’re down.” First officer: “We’re... [screams]”

Flight 3407 crashes on a house at 6038 Long Street in the small town of Clarence Center and bursts into flames. Beverly Eckert and the other 48 persons on board perish in the fiery aftermath, as well as a man who lived in the house.
*    *    *
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board determined that pilot error had caused the crash. Family members of those who died in the crash, including Karen Eckert and Susan Bourque, another of Beverly’s sisters, lobbied Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration to introduce measures to prevent future tragedies such as this. Thanks to the tireless efforts of these citizen activists, the FAA introduced new rules in 2013 aimed at improving the training of pilots in dealing with stalls and other safety factors in order to improve their preparedness in future flights.

23 October 2014

Meetup.com and No Truer Hearts: A fortuitous feedback loop that began on 9/11

This is a story about reaching out, finding kindred spirits and expressing gratitude. And it began on 9/11.

After the horror and shock and pain of the attacks, something amazing happened. People reached out. People asked for help and asked if they could help. This empathetic impulse of the heart expressed itself in millions of ways, from the moment the wounded staggered from the wreckage of the Twin Towers, to weeks and months later. New York City was hardest hit, and its people responded with the greatest displays of kindness and generosity. A big city of mostly strangers became smaller, friendlier,  more caring.

Enter Matt Meeker and Scott Heiferman, a couple of tech-savvy entrepreneurs angling for a new project. They felt the time was right after 9/11 for the Internet to become a tool for making human connections. Meetup.com was born. Today it has thousands of meetup groups with millions of members whose interests range from hiking, to speaking French, to writing. Which is how I found the Arlington Writers Group (AWG). In 2010, about a year after Beverly's death, I was going through a big, big personal crisis. My best friend left me (she was also my wife), and for a long stretch I felt very alone, more isolated than usual in my writing life.

I started to attend meetings of AWG mainly for professional reasons: to find other writers who could help me in my work through critiques, contacts, information and skill-sharpening. I found all this and more. Being around the mix of individuals in the group was good for my soul. Some of the writers were just starting out, hesitant, even, to call themselves writers. Others, like me, had been around the block a few times. There were novelists, science fiction writers, poets and the odd non-fiction writer. But everyone loved to write, wanted to get better, and gave of their skills and insights when it was time to offer critiques of our works.

Which brings us to last night. I submitted the first ten pages Chapter 3 of No Truer Hearts to the group for critique. When the session was over, I breathed a sigh of relief (the reaction was generally positive) and felt a wave of gratitude (people offered some helpful suggestions). A couple of comments stuck out, making me feel I was on the right track. Several people said they didn't know I'd written the chapter and thought it was written by a woman (!). This is high praise. The chapter is about Beverly's high school years, so I feel I have succeeded in inhabiting the world of an all-girl Catholic high school. Others didn't realize it was a biography, and said the chapter "reads like a novel." Which is exactly how creative non-fiction is supposed to read. Yay!

Not every comment was positive, but I took them all to heart and will employ them as I polish the manuscript over the coming months, turning it from something rough into a shiny bit of biography. I'm glad I found this particular meetup group. We are kindred spirits, working often in solitary obscurity, but getting together once a week to share our works, our suggestions, our critiques and our praise. So here's to the talented, persistent, bright and brave scribblers of AWG, and to all who have found kindred spirits in the wake of 9/11.

09 October 2014

Between the Here and the Hereafter, between science and faith

My radar is always attuned for news and notes about how people think about this life and the next. This article in The New York Review of Books about the recent wave of afterlife-related books illustrates that 1) there is a lot of money to be made in the afterlife publishing business, and 2) while there are some patterns in the description of near death experiences (NDEs), there is a lot of variation. Everyone, in the end (so to speak), has his or her own private idea of heaven, or something else, or nothing at all. It was especially interesting to read about the Biblical literalist who believes that no one can come back from heaven, because the Bible says only those who die (and stay dead) can go there.

And what new scientific study appears (by coincidence? yes, yes, by coincidence) on my news feed but one dealing with NDEs and out-of-body experiences (OBEs)? The most fascinating conclusion is that the concept of death is being re-defined because consciousness appears possible for several minutes even after the heart has stopped. There has long been anecdotal evidence of this, and I'm reminded of one wish my mother had as she was dying of cancer: to have some calm classical music playing so she could have it as her last earthly experience when she passed on.

Another interesting finding? That most of those who could recall a NDE described things, often unpleasant, that did not correspond with the typical NDE: a feeling of well-being, peace, light, contentment, etc. Instead:
While 39 percent of patients who survived cardiac arrest were able to describe a perception of awareness, they did not have any explicit recall of events. This, in particular, suggests more people may have mental activity initially but then lose their memories after recovery. Among those who reported awareness, 46 percent experienced a broad range of mental recollections that weren't compatible with the commonly used term of NDEs; these included fearful and persecutory experiences. [Emphasis added.] Only 9 percent had experiences compatible with NDEs and 2 percent exhibited full awareness compatible with OBEs.
Don't expect a spate of books, though, about the afterlife as a "fearful and persecutory" place. That is not what people want to read about. It's clear that the more we learn about our most complex organ, the further we expand the panorama of what we know as opposed to what we can only speculate about.