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Buffalo crash claimed Sept. 11 widow, Rwanda advocate

Beverly Eckert, whose husband died in the World Trade Center, helped survivors and pushed to create the 9/11 commission. Alison Des Forges fought for justice after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

February 14, 2009|Bob Drogin

SILVER SPRING, MD. — If tragedy brings people together, the still-unexplained crash of a Continental Airlines commuter jet 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 Bush White House to create the 9/11 Commission to investigate the attacks, and then helped push Congress to pass sweeping reforms of America's secret intelligence agencies.

"She really redefined for America how to be an effective activist and a committed citizen," said Tim Roemer, a member of the 9/11 commission and liaison to the victims' families. "That's an extraordinary achievement."

Des Forges led a tireless, often dangerous campaign to bring to justice the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and other massacres. She appeared as an expert witness at 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 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."

Of course, each victim on Flight 3407 from Newark, N.J., to Buffalo, N.Y., made a unique mark in the world.

Among them was Clay Yarber, 62, a rhythm and blues guitarist who served as a Marine in Vietnam, and Susan Wehle, 55, a much-loved cantor at a synagogue in Williamsville, N.Y.

Maddy Loftus, 24, was heading to a reunion of the women's ice hockey team at Buffalo State University. Mary Pettys, 50, software chief for an insurance company, was going home after a business trip. Two members of Chuck Mangione's jazz band, saxophonist Gerry Niewood and guitarist Coleman Mellett, were on their way to a concert.

"I'm in shock over the horrible, heartbreaking tragedy," Mangione said in a statement. He and his band were to perform Friday with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, but the concert was postponed.

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 then collapsed.

Eckert soon quit her job to help lead other Sept. 11 widows, mothers and survivors to press for government investigations, stricter building codes, stronger anti-terrorism efforts and national memorials.

Often tearful, sometimes tongue-tied, Eckert proved fearless and 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," said Roemer. "Ultimately, she was leading strategy sessions, meeting editorial boards, leading rallies. She learned how to meet chairmen of congressional committees and how to get in to see the White House chief of staff."

In the end, he said, "Bev not only battled the system, she mastered the system."

Last week, Eckert visited the White House when President Obama met with relatives of those killed in the 9/11 attacks and the bombing of the USS Cole to explain the new administration's policies on capturing and prosecuting suspected terrorists and preventing future attacks.

Speaking on Friday, Obama praised Eckert 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 had worked for the last two decades. She began as a volunteer but quickly devoted herself to spotlighting ethnic tensions and atrocities in Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Congo. "At some stage, I had to insist she take a salary," said Roth.

Winner of a MacArthur Award, the so-called genius prize, Des Forges wrote a detailed account of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which killed an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in less than three months. The book, "Leave None to Tell the Story," was based on hundreds of interviews with both organizers and survivors of the massacres. It is fiercely critical of the United Nations and Western governments for doing so little to prevent or stop the killing.

Like Eckert, Des Forges often defied conventional wisdom as well as government leaders, and provoked ire as well as praise.

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. That put her at odds with U.S. policy as well as Rwanda's ruling elite.

"She often was cited as if she was the opposition party in Rwanda," said Philip Gourevitch, a New Yorker writer and author of a book on Rwanda.

In all, Des Forges appeared as an expert witness at 11 trials for genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, as well as at trials in Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Canada.

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bob.drogin@latimes.com

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