Share this article

print logo

50 lives, some famous, are lost forever Activists, musicians, devoted family members and working people now linked by tragedy

Some of them were well known.

Like Alison Des Forges, a human rights activist and world-renowned expert on Rwanda, who was coming home from a public debate with a member of British Parliament.

Or two musicians who played with Chuck Mangione's jazz band, Coleman Mellett and Gerry Niewood, who were going to star in a jazz concert Friday night at Kleinhans Music Hall.

Or Beverly Eckert, the widow of a Buffalo-born man killed in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/1 1, who met President Obama last week. Obama called her "an inspiration."

Others were lesser known, but no less loved.

A devoted father of two, David Borner. A world traveler with family in Buffalo, John G. Roberts III. A woman named Mary Pettys, called "Belle," who got engaged in December and was planning a June wedding.

"Every morning since my mother's death, she would go to Tim Hortons, get a coffee for herself and my father, and bring it over to his house, sit there and have coffee," said her brother, Patrick Pettys. "Not a day went by when she missed it. She was a saint."

None of them imagined this would happen, when they stepped on board Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Newark, N.J., bound for Buffalo.

The plane was late getting off the ground. Eckert called her sister from the plane while it idled on the ground, to let her know she would be delayed a while.

"She said, 'Don't wait up, it looks like it's gonna be late.' But I did wait up," said Karen Eckert, an Amherst resident. "When we realized [it had crashed], we went straight to the airport. It's just unreal."

As the plane approached Buffalo Niagara International Airport at about 10:15 p.m., it abruptly plunged out of the drizzly sky and crashed into the home of a Clarence family of six, taking the lives of all 49 people on board, as well as one man in the house.

But one fact emerged as names of the victims trickled out in the aftermath: The passengers killed were as varied and multi-faceted as the city they were headed toward.

Here are some of their stories.

>Genocide expert

Des Forges, a Human Rights Watch senior adviser, had been on her way home from a London trip to discuss abuses of the Rwandan government with a member of Parliament.

Before she left New York City that afternoon, she said she was not looking forward to taking a small plane to Buffalo in blustery weather.

"But she took it anyway," said her husband, Roger, a University at Buffalo history professor.

Des Forges, 66, was known for her grace, humility and intellectual successes -- one of which was a prestigious MacArthur "genius" grant, another a book about the Rwandan genocide. She conducted meetings with famous peace advocates, such as Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela.

"She worked day and night to save people's lives," said Helene Kramer, a family friend.

Des Forges and her husband met as Schenectady-area high school students and Model United Nations members. Des Forges was secretary-general. "I felt that she was beautiful in both body and spirit," he said.

Her focus of study, on the lake region of eastern Africa and Rwanda and Burundi, followed her volunteering as a Harvard undergraduate to teach Rwandan refugees. Her Ph.D. dissertation at Yale University, about the Rwandan monarchy, led the nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch to send her with a team to research ethnic tensions and political killings in 1992.

Two years later, war began, just as her report had warned.

"Her expertise was sought again and again and again by national authorities on cases unfolding in their courts of individuals facing deportation, or on trial for alleged involvement in the genocide," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

Des Forges' latest trip to London was for a forum discussion with a conservative member of Parliament and focused on international development. She thought afterward that she'd been persuasive, her husband said.

A former adjunct professor at UB, Des Forges came to Buffalo with her husband in 1973.

"She was an advocate for people who could not advocate for themselves," said Kramer. "It's a loss for everyone."

>Music was their life

50 lives, some famous, are lost forever       Activists, musicians, devoted family members and working people now linked by tragedy

At least three people on board the plane lived for music.

Two of them were lucky enough to play in the band of Chuck Mangione, a popular jazz musician whose hits include the song "Feels So Good." The band was scheduled to play Friday night in Kleinhans; that concert was canceled.

Gerry Niewood, 64, a Rochester native, played saxophone and flute, and had been playing on Mangione's jazz records since he was 14.

Coleman Mellett, of East Brunswick, N.J., played guitar.

"I'm in shock over the horrible, heartbreaking tragedy of the crash of Flight 3407, which took the lives of my dear friends and band members," Mangione said in a statement. "I am grieving and praying with their families and friends."

The other musician aboard the plane was Susan Wehle, cantor at Williamsville's Temple Beth Am for the last seven years.

Wehle, 55, loved music. She even recorded a CD called "Songs of Healing and Hope." At her temple, she was known for the classes she organized to instruct congregants on leading services. She had a degree in acting, and performed with theater companies and conducted choirs across the United States, Canada and Israel.

"Her concern for others, her love of the life of the spirit, was infectious," said Rabbi Irwin A. Tanenbaum of Temple Beth Am. "Any who knew Cantor Wehle came under her spell."

>Young and promising

Three young women aboard the plane, all of whom died at just 24, will forever serve as heartbreaking reminders of promising futures cut short.

Ellyce Kausner was one. Known as "Elly," the Clarence native consistently amazed her family by her achievements -- and her potential.

A graduate of Canisius College, where she won an award for being the student with the most potential for the study of law, Kausner was in her second year at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville.

"She had more life in her than 10 of us," said John Kausner, her father.

Madeline Linn Loftus was also full of spirit. The Parsippany, N.J., resident loved ice hockey with a passion -- playing it, watching it, even driving the Zamboni when needed.

Loftus was on her way into Buffalo for a reunion of a team she used to play for: the Buffalo State College women's ice hockey squad.

Rebecca Lynne Shaw had already displayed the drive and discipline needed to succeed in her chosen career -- as a pilot.

Shaw, of Maple View, Wash., had decided in high school, where she was an athlete, that she wanted a career aboard airplanes. Besides her career as a co-pilot with Colgan Air, an airline she had joined a year ago, she was a certified flight instructor.

>Heading for happiness

A few aboard the plane had their heads full of plans for weddings they were soon to attend -- or participate in. Happy occasions, now forever changed.

One woman, 30-year-old Lorin Maurer of Princeton, N.J., was traveling to Buffalo to attend the wedding of her boyfriend's brother. Her boyfriend, Kevin Kuwik, is the son of former Erie County Legislator Edward Kuwik. Maurer worked at Princeton University.

"Belle" Pettys was planning her own June wedding. She had gotten engaged in December -- a lovely present, for her 50th birthday.

Pettys, who grew up in West Seneca in a family of 10 kids, worked for many years at BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York before taking a job at TriZetto. She loved spending time with her large family and friends, family members recalled.

>A tragic coincidence

In a sad twist, the victim who was killed on the ground was a former co-worker of one of the victims on Flight 3407.

Douglas C. Wielinski, who was killed when the plane crashed into his Long Street home, worked at Henkel Corp. in Buffalo until 2003, according to a Henkel employee.

Passenger Kevin Johnston worked at Henkel and was returning on Flight 3407 from a business trip, the employee told The News. The Buffalo facility was closed Friday in Henkel's honor.

>The 9/1 1 widow

One death in particular resonated across the nation because of its haunting poignancy.

Eckert, who saw her husband, Sean Rooney, die when the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, was on her way back home to Buffalo, her birthplace, to celebrate a few special events.

She was flying into Buffalo on a high note. Just last week, she had met with President Obama in Washington, for a discussion of the detainee situation in Guantanamo Bay.

The meeting was more public recognition of Eckert's high-profile role as an advocate for victims' families in the wake of her husband's death.

Phil Johnson tries to keep luminaries glowing at the site where Flight 3407 crashed during a vigil earlier this year. He lost his father-in-law Kevin Johnston. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Eckert was impressed with Obama. She saved the napkin from under his drinking glass, as a souvenir, and bragged to friends about it.

"I sat right across from Obama at the meeting," she wrote in an e-mail to some friends, "and although I took a photo of him, I opted not to use the flash on my camera since that would have been rude. So this is a really blurry photo, but you can still tell who it is."

The admiration was mutual. Obama, in turn, was clearly impressed with Eckert -- a slight, blonde woman known for her tailored clothes, her love of home renovation projects and pottery-making, and her unstoppable drive and determination.

Obama called Eckert a "tireless advocate for the families, those whose lives were forever changed on that September day."

"I pray that her family finds peace and comfort in the hard days ahead," the president said during a news conference Friday morning.

Eckert, 57, a resident of Stamford, Conn., was bound for Buffalo in anticipation of two events she always looked forward to: a gathering with her family and Rooney's, in commemoration of what would have been Sean's 58th birthday on Sunday; and a ceremony at Canisius High School in which she was to award a student with a memorial scholarship in honor of her husband, an alumnus of the school.

"She was an extremely intelligent, competent person. When she was faced with what she faced, and saw a reason to do something, she put her many talents toward that," said Karen Eckert of Amherst, Beverly's sister. "But she wanted balance in her life, too. She said, 'Every day is precious.' "

Eckert, a tireless advocate for the families of 9/1 1 victims in the years following the terrorist attacks, became a national figure and authority on the issue.

Friends were stunned by the idea that Eckert had died in a way that paralleled her husband -- a fiery plane crash.

"I think there's great irony," said Pamela Germain, a vice president at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and close friend of Eckert's. "Sean died with thousands; she died with dozens. The unique circumstances under which they both perished -- it's a puzzle. I can't pretend I'm reconciled to all this."

News Staff Reporters Peter Simon, Michelle Kearns, Henry Davis, Steve Watson, and other Buffalo News staff members contributed to this report.


Families of Flight 3407 victims turn tragedy into charity, wresting 'beauty from the ashes'

Story topics:

There are no comments - be the first to comment