Remembering An Activist

Phil Hirschkorn is a CBS News producer based in New York.
The tight-knit community of September 11th victims family members who became activists mourned the loss of one of their own Friday, when it became known that Beverly Eckert was a passenger aboard Continental Flight 3407, which crashed in Buffalo.

(AP PHOTO/Susan Walsh)
She was on her way to celebrate what would have been her late husband Sean's 58th birthday with family and friends, and to attend the presentation of a scholarship she had established in his memory at Canisius High School, where they'd met at a dance at age 16, only to become a lifelong couple.

"All of us are in shock," said Carie Lemack, who lost her mother, Judy Larocque, on a plane in America's worst terrorist attack, who channeled her grief into activism along with Beverly.

(family photo)
Beverly's husband and high school sweetheart, Sean Rooney, then 50, was among the more than 200 people who died at work for insurer Aon Corp in the World Trade Center's south tower – trapped above where the second plane struck on Sept. 11, 2001.

"We've been standing side by side for over seven-and-half-years now trying to make sure what happened to Sean and to my mom and nearly three thousand others never happens again. Now we're going to have to continue this work to honor Beverly herself," Lemack said.

After the north tower had been struck at 8:46 a.m., the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the transportation agency that built and ran the World Trade Center, made a fatal announcement over the PA system advising people in the south tower to remain where they were, and Rooney did, in his office on the 98th floor.

At 8:59 a.m., Sean made the first of two calls that would be preserved on the answering machine at the couple's Stamford, Conn., home. He described the scene across the Trade Center plaza as "horrible." At 9:02 a.m., one minute before the second plane hit, Rooney made another call.

"Hi, this is Sean again. It looks like we'll be in this tower for a while. It's secure here. I'll talk to you later. Bye," he calmly said.

After he left those messages, Beverly, did speak with Sean as he tried unsuccessfully to evacuate and then, on the 105th floor, gave up. "He was trapped, he said. Unable to go higher because of a locked door. Unable to go lower because of smoke and heat," she recalled in 2006.

They were on the phone together when the South Tower collapsed less than an hour later.

(White House Photo/Pete Sousa)
If you ever covered an event Beverly attended or interviewed her, you learned her buzzwords were "accountability" and "transparency." She wanted answers. She was a plaintiff in the lawsuit against New York City that forced the release of FDNY tapes and transmissions from 9/11. She was a rare family member who chose to sue the airlines rather than settle for a payout from the government's victims' compensation fund. She pushed for the 9/11 Commission to be formed and then lobbied Congress for weeks to make sure the recommendations for reforming the U.S. intelligence establishment were adopted.

"My concern is that there are people who are not competent and irresponsible who may still be in positions of authority," she told us the day the commission's report came out in Washington on July 22, 2004. "I'm not angry. It's not that I wanted heads to roll. But I worked in a large corporation, and I think sometimes you do have to identify the people within the organization who are not functioning the way they should be," she said.

"She had a lot of spunk and a lot of sass, and when she got something into her head, I knew it was gonna happen," Lemack remembered. "Something that motivated all of us, including Beverly, was to make that we knew exactly what had happened to our loved ones, because that's the only way to prevent it from happening again."

Beverly had co-founded Voices of September 11th, along with Mary Fetchet, who lost her son, Brad, in the WTC attack.

"Beverly was passionate and deeply committed to improving the safety and security of Americans. She worked tirelessly to advocate for the creation of the 9/11 Commission and legislation based on its recommendations," Fetchet said.

Just last week, Beverly was among the 40 9/11 family members who met with President Obama at the White House to discuss the closing of prison camp at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and scenarios for handling the detainees there, which includes a number of the alleged planners of 9/11.

"We are privileged to have known and worked with this extraordinary individual, whose own remarkable legacy of love and bravery will become a part of the memorial museum," said Joe Daniels, president of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. It has posted Beverly's recorded reflections on Sean's last moments on its Web site, which can be found here.

She has said Sean had an irrepressible laugh and saw the humor in any situation. He was a self-taught handyman skilled at rebuilding cars and kitchen cabinets, a gardener, and a chef. Their song was "You Made Me So Very Happy" by Blood, Sweat, and Tears. "I got a chance to tell him that," Beverly told an oral history project about 9/11.

Lemack said, "I'm just so sad for Beverly, because I know she had so much more work she wanted to do to honor Sean. Not just in changing our country, but also in providing a scholarship to students from the buffalo area. That was very much Beverly. She wanted to help people globally but also locally."
  • Phil Hirschkorn

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