Lives cut short
Rita Papazian
Norwalk-Citizen News
Posted: 02/20/2009

If a photo is worth a thousand words, then the front page of The New York Times on St. Valentine's Day spoke volumes. Across the top of the fold, the newspaper splashed photos of five of the 50 victims of last week's airplane crash shortly before landing at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The five smiling faces ranged from 24 year-old Maddy Loftus returning to play a reunion hockey game with former teammates at Buffalo State College to 66 year-old Alison L. Des Forges, a human rights activist and historian who lived in Buffalo. She was considered one of the world's leading experts on genocide in Rwanda. The other three included Stamford resident Beverly Eckert, who lost her husband on 9/11 and became a spokesman for victims' families. She was flying upstate for a presentation of a scholarship in her late husband's name at his old high school. Also pictured is cantor Susan Wehle, who sang at a temple near Buffalo and guitarist Coleman Mellett, one of two musicians with the Chuck Mangione Band who perished in the crash.

I was startled to read the names and backgrounds of the victims on this flight that also, according to the Times, including Clay Yarber, a decorated marine, scheduled to visit a friend; Lorin Mauer, a fund raiser for Princeton University's Athletic Department and first officer Rebecca Lynne Shaw, 24 of Washington state, who had been flying with the airline just one year.

The passenger list also included a husband, wife and 12-year-old son; a pregnant woman and many businessmen and women heading to or returning from business trips.

I was startled by the accomplishments of this cross-section of U.S. citizens and also by the circumstances. They had lost their lives one hour after take-off from Newark where the commuter plane had been delayed two hours because of weather. They had lost their lives in a suburb of Buffalo, a very unglamorous, unassuming upstate New York City. How ironic, just miles from a Buffalo airport, such accomplished people whose lives represented such a cross-section of Americans, from music and sports to business and human rights, should be cut short so dramatically.

In my sadness in reading about this tragedy, I felt angry towards the media because it focuses so much on celebrity that its takes our attention away from the good that people such as Alison Des Forges and Beverly Eckert have done with their lives.

I suspect that I must take responsibility for allowing myself to be distracted and not knowing about Des Forges and the work that she did.

Commenting on Des Forges work, on The New Yorker Web site, George Packer said,"And she managed to do it without the self-righteous territoriality that is the occupational vice of human-rights experts. Her attachment to the country and its people seemed neither saintly nor professional, but entirely human."

Beverly Eckert was flying to Buffalo to present a scholarship to a Canisius High School student in honor of her late husband Sean Rooney's 58th birthday. After 9/11, Eckert became a passionate voice for the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center. She co-founded the Voices for Sept. 11, an advocacy group for survivors and victims' families. Rooney had been in the south tower of the WTC and spent the last minutes of his life talking to Eckert on his cell phone, while trying to find a way out. Eckert advocated for improved building codes and emergency communications.

In a 2003 op-ed piece in USA Today, Eckert wrote that she had chosen to go to court rather than accept a payoff from the 9/11 victims' compensation fund so that she could use her powers to compel evidence.

She wrote: "The victims fund was not created in a spirit of compassion. Rather, it was a tacit acknowledgement by Congress that it tampered with our civil justice system in an unprecedented way. Lawmakers capped the liability of the airlines at the behest of lobbyists who descended on Washington while the Sept. 11 fire still smoldered. And this liability cap protects not just the airlines, but also World Trade Center builders, safety engineers and other defendants."

In writing, Eckert said: "I want to know what went so wrong with our intelligence and security systems that a band of religious fanatics was able to turn four U.S. passenger jets into an enemy force, attack our cities and kill 3,000 civilians with terrifying ease. I want to know why two 110-story skyscrapers collapsed in less than two hours and why escape and rescue options were so limited."

Today, while investigators seek out the cause of Flight 3407's fatal crash, questions begin to surface about the adequate training of pilots in the airline industry, a point that surfaced following the heroic efforts of Pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III in landing his aircraft in the Hudson River last month. Amidst the praise for Sully's heroism, one civilian-trained airline captain noted the importance of pilot experience.

Two airplane mishaps in one month bring success and adulation for one and tears and tragedy to another. It's interesting the role that the human condition and spirit play in life.

Rita Papazian is a freelance writer who has written extensively about Norwalk. She can be reached at .

Copyright 2009 Rita Papazian All rights reserved.