On Sept. 11, 2001, Beverly Eckert, of Stamford, Conn., was talking to her beloved husband on a cell phone as he fought to escape the World Trade Center. When the south tower collapsed, she was still on the phone with him and listened to him die.
Today, Eckert's relatives are grieving again. She was one of the 50 people who perished in a plane crash in Buffalo late Thursday. Eckert was traveling upstate to hometown to celebrate the 58th birthday of her late husband, who was a native of Buffalo. She was scheduled to deliver an address to Canisius High School, where her husband Sean Rooney's legacy was to be honored with a scholarship. The two were high school sweethearts.
"We know she was on that plane and now she's with him" Eckert’s sister Sue Borque told The Buffalo News at the Buffalo Airport where flight 3047 was scheduled to land at 10:40 p.m.
In the days, weeks and years after the 9/11 attacks, Eckert was a tireless advocate for the victims' families. She spearheaded protests that led politicians to set aside more land for a memorial at Ground Zero, fought to ensure federal authorities would thoroughly probe the cause of the twin towers' collapse and spoke eloquently again and again about her husband and the many others who died.
Her husband worked at Aon Corp., a risk management firm, at the 98th floor of the World Trade Center's south tower.
She cried when she would tell the story about how her husband called her on the morning of the attacks, and told her he loved her just before there was a loud explosion and nothing more.
Just last week, Eckert was at the White House with Barack Obama, part of a meeting the president had with relatives of those killed in the 2001 attacks and the bombing of the USS Cole to discuss how the new administration would handle terror suspects.
"She 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," Obama said.
As a member of the 9/11 Commission's Family Steering Committee, Eckert spearheaded a push to have the airlines held liable for the security lapses and other missteps that allowed terrorists to hijack the passenger jets. She told Congress she was suing the airlines because "lawmakers capped the liability of the airlines at the behest of lobbyists who descended on Washington while the September 11 fires still smoldered."
Eckert also was instrumental in securing a compensation fund for the families of 9/11 victims. Her impassioned plea before the House of Representatives in 2004 contributed to a $7 billion pay-out to more than 5,000 families.
"My husband Sean was trapped in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th but was able to reach me by phone. When the smoke and flames drew near and Sean knew he was going to die, he remained calm, speaking of his love for me and for his family. I will forever be in awe of the way he faced those final moments," she said.
"In the days that followed, I felt somehow infused with his courage and strength, and that helped me persevere through the difficult months that followed. So many other family members were similarly inspired. Despite our private anguish, we shared a goal- to make this country safer so that the deaths of 3,000 people would not be meaningless."
In 2006, Eckert wrote a diary for the BBC called "9/11 experience: A widow's story." She reflected on her last call with her husband, writing, "I consider that fate was merciful to us in that we had the opportunity to say goodbye. So many others didn't."
Eckert also turned her energies to community projects, including Habitat for Humanity, helping build homes for low-income families.
Flowers sit outside the front door of Eckert's Stamford home. "You will be missed," the message says.
Her neighbors are stunned.
Gail Armondino remembers how Eckert welcomed her and her husband when moved into their home.
Armondino’s husband went out and she was studying for exams when there was a knock on the door. Eckert had brought a pie.
“She was just the loveliest woman I ever knew. Her husband was fabulous. I don't know what else to say. I'm so shaken up from the whole thing," Armondino said.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell has ordered the flag at the 9-11 memorial on Sherwood Island in Westport to be lowered to half staff and that a rose be placed on the commemorative plaque in memory of Eckert.
“Beverly’s strength, passion and courage was – and will continue to be – an inspiration to us all,” Rell said. “Her advocacy following the 9/11 tragedies was compelling and effective. In her grief over the loss of her husband, she found a way to bring about public good. We felt this gesture at Sherwood Island would be a fitting tribute to Beverly. Our hearts and prayers go out to her family and friends.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman met with Eckert several times about the 911 commission and intelligence legislation. He issued a statement Friday.
"I am deeply saddened by the terrible loss of life in the plane crash outside of Buffalo. This tragedy has taken the life of Beverly Eckert of Stamford who lost her husband in the attack on America on September 11, 2001,” Lieberman said. “I was privileged to work with Beverly in the creation of the 9/11 Commission. Beverly worked tirelessly to honor the memories of those who lost their lives on that day and now we should pay tribute to her. Hadassah's and my prayers and wishes are with Beverly's family and with all of those families who lost loved ones in this tragedy."
State Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, issued a statement Friday.
“Beverly was not just a constituent of mine, she was a friend and neighbor. From my home, I daily see the one she shared with Sean. While many knew Beverly as a passionate advocate for the families of 9/11 survivors in both Hartford and Washington, we in the Glenbrook section of Stamford knew her as a kind and wonderful neighbor. She will be dearly missed by all of us who admired her so much.”