By DEVLIN BARRETT
Associated Press Writer
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 Barack 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.