Tragedy unites two crusaders
If tragedy brings people together, the crash of a Continental Connection flight Thursday night forever links Beverly Eckert and Alison Des Forges, two extraordinary women who led separate crusades against seemingly impossible odds.
Los Angeles Times
Flight 3407 developments
Ice buildup: The crew of the plane noticed significant ice buildup on the wings and windshield just before the aircraft began pitching and rolling violently, investigators said Friday. Officials stopped short of saying the ice buildup caused Thursday night's crash.
Survivors: One of the survivors from the house hit by the plane, Karen Wielinski, 57, told WBEN-AM that she was watching TV in the family room when she heard a noise. She said her daughter, Jill, 22, who also survived, was watching TV in another part of the house. "Planes do go over our house, but this one just sounded really different, louder. ... The next thing I knew the ceiling was on me." She said her husband, Doug, 61, an engineer and Vietnam veteran, probably was in the dining room. He died.
Black boxes retrieved: Investigators pulled the "black box" recorders from the wreckage, sent them to Washington, D.C., and began analyzing the flight data and listening to the cockpit conversations.
Source: Seattle Times news services
SILVER SPRING, Md. — If tragedy brings people together, the crash of a Continental Connection flight Thursday night forever links Beverly Eckert and Alison Des Forges, two extraordinary women who led separate crusades against seemingly impossible odds.
Eckert was a Sept. 11 widow who turned her grief into powerful advocacy. She helped force a reluctant White House led by George W. Bush to create the 9/11 Commission to investigate the attacks, and helped push Congress to pass a sweeping overhaul of the nation's secret intelligence agencies.
"She really redefined for America how to be an effective activist and a committed citizen," said Tim Roemer, a former member of the 9/11 Commission and liaison to the victims' families.
Des Forges led an often dangerous campaign to bring to justice the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and other massacres. She appeared as an expert witness in scores of war-crimes trials and other judicial proceedings around the world.
"There really was no one like her," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the Human Rights Watch. "Here is this diminutive woman, barely 5 feet tall, 66-years-old, who still had the energy of a 25-year-old to travel around the world to help save the victims of terrible slaughter."
Des Forges and Eckert were not the only extraordinary people on Flight 3407 from Newark, N.J., to Buffalo, N.Y. They are a sample of the 50 people who died late Thursday when the 74-seat commuter plane plummeted to earth. It hit a home in the quiet hamlet of Clarence Center, as it approached Buffalo Niagara International Airport a few miles away, killing all 49 on board and one in the home.
Eckert was going to Buffalo, her hometown, to celebrate the 58th birthday of her late husband, Sean Rooney, and to award a scholarship in his memory. On Sept. 11, 2001, he had phoned his wife to say a last goodbye as the south tower of the World Trade Center burned around him and collapsed.
Eckert soon quit her job to help lead other 9/11 widows, mothers and survivors to press for government investigations, stricter building codes, stronger anti-terrorism efforts and national memorials.
She proved relentless. She risked arrest at protests more than once, and had critics as well as supporters.
"When she started, she didn't know if the House or the Senate was bigger," Roemer said. "Ultimately, she was leading strategy sessions, meeting editorial boards, leading rallies."
Last week, Eckert visited the White House when President Obama met with relatives of those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks and the bombing of the USS Cole to explain the new administration's policies on capturing and prosecuting terrorism suspects, and preventing future attacks.
Obama praised Eckert on Friday as "an inspiration to me and to so many others."
Des Forges was heading home to Buffalo after an advocacy trip to Europe for Human Rights Watch, where she worked for two decades. She began as a volunteer, quickly devoting herself to spotlighting ethnic tensions and atrocities in Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Congo.
Winner of a MacArthur Award, the so-called genius prize, Des Forges ultimately wrote a detailed account of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, which killed an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in fewer than three months.
The book, "Leave None to Tell the Story," was based on hundreds of interviews with organizers and survivors of the massacres. It is fiercely critical of the United Nations and Western governments for doing so little to prevent or halt the killing.
Rwanda banned her from returning last year after she led a public campaign to hold senior government officials accountable for killings that followed the genocide. Some of the others who died on Flight 3407:
Yarber, 62, was a decorated Marine who had twice survived helicopter crashes in Vietnam but who was left with a fear of flying so deep he often preferred to drive, even cross-country. Thursday, Yarber had boarded a flight from California, connecting through Newark, to visit a friend in the Buffalo area. He died single but left behind five ex-wives, one of whom he married twice, and seven children.
Wehle, 55, was a much beloved cantor at a synagogue in Williamsville, N.Y. The avid traveler was returning to the area from a two-week vacation in Costa Rica with a friend. Wehle, who had two sons, had recently released a compact disc, "Shirei Refuah v'Tikvah — Songs of Hope and Healing." She also conducted youth and adult choirs, and performed in concerts in the United States, Canada and Israel.
Loftus, 24, of Parsippany, N.J., had a reason not to mind airplanes or their dangers: Her father was a pilot for Continental. She was headed to a reunion of the women's ice-hockey team at the State University of New York, Buffalo.
Renslow, 47, the plane's pilot, lived in the Tampa suburb of Lutz, Fla., and grew up in Iowa. He joined Colgan Air, the company operating the flight, in September 2005 and had flown 3,379 hours with the airline.
Renslow's family is "very proud of Marvin's accomplishments as a pilot," said Alan Burner, associate pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lutz. Neighbors said Renslow had a wife and two children.
Zuffoletto, 28, an off-duty captain for the airline, had recently been certified to fly the model plane he was on and was commuting home to Jamestown. A licensed pilot since he was 17, he had left San Diego, where he grew up, to fly out of the Buffalo area because he liked the challenge of flying in poor weather, said his father, John Zuffoletto.
"Joe loved being in the clouds," Zuffoletto said.
An accomplished jazz guitarist, Mellett, 33, of East Brunswick, N.J., was a touring member of trumpeter Chuck Mangione's band for the last several years. The group was scheduled to perform Friday night with the Buffalo Philharmonic, but the concert was canceled.
He lived with his wife, singer Jeanie Bryson, according to The Star-Ledger of Newark.
Niewood, 64, was a childhood friend of trumpeter Mangione and had been making music with him since the two were children. He lived in Glen Ridge, N.J., and played saxophone, clarinet and flute for some of the biggest names in pop music, according to his MySpace profile. He, too, was flying to Buffalo for a performance with Mangione's band. In addition to Mangione, Niewood backed artists as diverse as Peggy Lee, Simon and Garfunkel, Judy Collins, Frank Sinatra and Sinead O'Connor, among others.
Kausner was a second-year law student at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville. Her sister, Laura Kausner, said Ellyce was flying home to be her nephew's date at a kindergarten Valentine's Day party Friday.
Material from The Associated Press and The New York Times
is included in this report.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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