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Shattered by pain of double loss

After 9/1 1, everyone who knew them wondered. How would Beverly go on without Sean?

After all, they had been together so long. Since the time they were 16 and met at a high school dance. The attraction was instant, powerful. They became a unit: Beverly and Sean, forever. He worked in restaurants around Buffalo, she was a waitress who made pottery and painted. Later on they moved to New England. They built a good life.

That all came crashing down, when the Twin Towers collapsed on Sept. 11.

Sean Rooney, a vice president at Aon, was in his office at the top of the South Tower when terrorist planes hit. He called his wife as the towers smoked and burned. Rooney asked her what he could do to try to escape. She urged him to try the fire doors. But they were locked, and he couldn't find another way out.

When the South Tower collapsed, sending up plumes of smoke, Beverly Eckert knew Sean was gone.

And everyone wondered: How could she do it? They had been joined so closely.

I wondered the same thing myself, interviewing Eckert several times in the months and years after 9/1 1. One time, while we were chatting in the lobby of the Hyatt, she began to tell me about those final minutes on the phone with her husband. She described what Sean said to her, and the fear and pain in his voice. Then, her body caved inward, racked by grief, and she sobbed.

Pain like that, the rawest kind, never really fades. But it can become productive. Eckert exemplified that: She became a crusader for victims' families and achieved goals including the creation of a commission to investigate 9/1 1. Two weeks ago, she met with Barack Obama.

When her name was released among those of the victims of Flight 3407, it hit people in Buffalo -- and all over the country -- like a double punch in the gut.

How could this happen to Beverly? And how could it happen twice, to the Eckert and Rooney families?

"They both died on account of fiery plane crashes. And they both died young, with so much to give," said Karen Eckert, Beverly's sister. "It's just unreal."

The end of Beverly and Sean's story is hard to comprehend. If it teaches us anything, it's this: Disaster does not inoculate against disaster. Death doesn't pick and choose, weighing up the circumstances of a life, no matter how much we might wish otherwise. Rooney died with thousands. And all 49 souls aboard Flight 3407 were swept into eternity in the instant that the plane crashed to the ground in Clarence.

The only thing to do now, Eckert's loved ones said, is to remember the woman they adored.

The happy wife. The gleeful artist, whose canvases fill their homes. The advocate for justice. The tireless crusader; the Woman Who Would Not Hear No when it came to seeking truth.

In the years after 9/1 1, Eckert refused to remove the wedding band she had worn during her marriage. It was a ring she and Rooney bought in Buffalo: an artist's design, about one-quarter-inch wide, with a design of intertwined flowers.

She didn't want to ever take it off. It had been on her hand when she received Rooney's final phone call from the South Tower. It was on her hand when Flight 3407 plunged out of a dark and icy sky, and into history.

Even at the last, her friend Pamela Germain said, "She was connected to him."

Beverly and Sean. Together forever. In life, for so many happy years; and now, after an interval between two inconceivable tragedies, in the rest of the just -- and the loved.


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