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Out of tragedy, activism Sisters of Eckert follow her crusading example

The hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center eight years ago today changed Beverly Eckert's life utterly and irrevocably.

And the plane that crashed into a house in Clarence Center in February, killing 50 people -- including Eckert -- upended the lives of her sisters, Karen Eckert of Amherst and Susan Bourque of East Aurora, in the very same way.

Seven years after Beverly Eckert walked through the halls of Congress to demand -- and help win -- an independent investigation of the 9/1 1 terrorist attacks, her sisters are walking in her footsteps, demanding action on aviation safety in the wake of the Feb. 12 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407.

"If it had been one of us who had died in that plane, there's no question what Beverly would have done," Karen Eckert said this week during her eighth lobbying trip to the nation's capital. "Or if for some reason the plane had recovered, she immediately would have put all her attention into finding out what happened. She would have been relentless."

That's exactly what the Eckert sisters have been in recent months, though in a bit more subtle way than their sister Beverly -- who famously confronted Henry Kissinger after he was appointed (before soon withdrawing) as head of the 9/1 1 commission, and who was never shy about contacting reporters with tips and ideas.

Concerned that their efforts might be misperceived, Karen Eckert and Susan Bourque have, for the most part, left it to other Flight 3407 family members to testify at hearings and speak with the media.

Behind the scenes, though, they have acted with the clout that comes with being sisters to a citizen activist who was well-known and much loved throughout Washington.

"It truly is amazing what Karen and Susan have done in Washington, using their sister's experience and connections to guide our group through this lobbying process," said John Kausner of Clarence Center, who lost his 24-year-old daughter, Elly, in the Flight 3407 tragedy. "I am sure that Beverly and all our loved ones are looking down proudly on what they and we are all doing."

What Eckert and Bourque are doing, in essence, is just what their sister did.

After Beverly Eckert's husband, Sean Rooney, died in the collapse of the World Trade Center's South Tower on Sept. 11, 2001, Eckert turned her grief into action.

She co-founded an advocacy group, Voices of September 11, and lobbied Congress relentlessly for creation of the 9/1 1 commission.

Eckert kept lobbying for years after that commission delivered its report in July 2004, taking on a new role as an activist pushing the findings of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction and meeting with President Obama on Feb. 6 to discuss the suspected terrorists incarcerated on the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

On Feb. 12, Eckert boarded Flight 3407 on a flight to her hometown for what was supposed to be a family celebration of what would have been her husband's 58th birthday.

Once again, the Eckert and Rooney families met with tragedy -- one that was deeply felt both in Buffalo and Washington. "She was an inspiration to me and to so many others," Obama said after her death.

What's more, Beverly Eckert left a legacy that's a blueprint for any citizen activist who wants to get the federal government to act, and act big.

"She had an idea and she recognized she could not do it alone," Karen Eckert said. "So she found other people with a like resolve and began an organization, not just an idea."

Bourque agreed, saying: "She was just this person working every day in the insurance industry who became this incredible powerhouse, this turbine engine of advocacy, who would never give up. Most important, she accomplished her goal."

And now, Karen Eckert and Susan Bourque are hard at work to accomplish theirs.

Teaming up with other family advocates such as Kevin Kuwik and Scott Maurer, they have been meeting for months with lawmakers and their aides, pushing them to develop some of the most far-reaching aviation safety legislation ever in wake of the crash that claimed their sister's life.

Congressional aides praise the Flight 3407 families as an unusually well-organized and effective group of citizen activists -- but it was one that the two sisters at first were reluctant to join. "We didn't want to take over the issue," Karen Eckert said.

But when they traveled to the National Transportation Safety Board hearings on the crash in May -- which revealed that pilot fatigue and the level of training at regional airlines were major issues -- the sisters joined other Flight 3407 families as they made the rounds of Capitol Hill.

Senators and staffers alike shared fond remembrances of Beverly with her sisters, who quickly realized that Beverly's prominence could help them do some good on Capitol Hill.

"We thought it might open some doors for us, and it has," Bourque said.

Before long, the sisters -- Karen, an official at the Department of Homeland Security, and Susan, a manager at the Social Security Administration -- decided to retire from their jobs to concentrate on their activism.

And now they're regular visitors to Washington, strolling through the halls of Congress with portfolios in hand and talking points at the ready.

Like members of other Flight 3407 families, they're investing their own time and money in an effort that could pay off in tougher rules on fatigue and better training for pilots, plus stricter oversight of the airline industry.

They took a break from their lobbying work to travel to New York City on Thursday to speak as part of a panel sponsored by Voices of September 11 and to accept the annual "Building Bridges" award that the group gave posthumously to Beverly Eckert.

The sisters expect to return to Washington soon, however, and when they do, they won't be alone.

"We feel Beverly's presence," Karen Eckert said Wednesday, just before heading off to meet with more Senate staffers, to which Bourque added:

"She's with us in spirit."


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