Crash victims include rights campaigner, beloved cantor

Alison Des Forges was senior adviser of the New York-based Human Rights Watch's Africa Division.
A human rights official known for her expertise on the Rwanda genocide. A 9/11 widow who channeled her grief into fighting for survivors and families. A beloved cantor.

Portraits are emerging of the 50 people who died Thursday night when a Continental Airlines flight operated by Colgan Air crashed into a home near Buffalo, New York. All 49 aboard the plane died, along with one person on the ground. Alison Des Forges, senior adviser of the New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division, was one of the people on Flight 3407, the group told CNN on Friday. Des Forges, who lived in Buffalo, spent four years in Rwanda documenting the 1994 genocide and had testified about that atrocity and the current situation in central Africa before U.N. and congressional panels, the group said. Her biography on the HRW Web site says she is a historical who also is an expert on Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Des Forges was a French-speaker who earned her bachelor’s in history from Harvard University and her doctorate in history from Yale University. Another victim was Beverly Eckert, the widow of 9/11 victim Sean Rooney, who died in the World Trade Center.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Eckert co-founded “Voices of September 11,” an advocate group for survivors and 9/11 families. She had a reputation as a strong campaigner of 9/11 families, involved in protests leading to more land for a Ground Zero memorial, working on the 9/11 Commission’s Family Steering Committee, and pushing for a victims’ families compensation fund. A resident of Connecticut, Eckert was traveling to Buffalo for a weekend celebration of what would have been her husband’s 58th birthday. Also on the plane was 55-year-old Susan Wehle, cantor of Temple Beth Am in Williamsville, New York, said synagogue administrator Richard Ellis. “She was a very very spiritual person,” Ellis said.

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“She just glowed with excitement and energy when she talked about her spirit and the spirit of religion that lives within her. She expressed that in so many ways.” Ellis had been planning to drive to the airport to pick up Wehle when she arrived in Buffalo on Thursday. But instead of getting a text message from her at the Buffalo airport, he saw the news that a plane from Newark had crashed. Before Wehle joined the Temple Beth Am, she was a cantorial soloist at Temple Sinai in Amherst, New York. Wehle taught music workshops, conducted choirs, and performed in concerts and with theater companies, according to a biography on the temple Web site. She released a CD called “Songs of Hope and Healing.” She is survived by two sons, one in Israel and another in Vermont. Ellis said Wehle, who lived in Amherst, was well known across the religious spectrum through her interfaith work. People were shocked to hear about Wehle, he said. “She’s going to be so missed by the whole community, not just the Jewish community,” Ellis said. “She was loved by everyone.” Colgan Air, which operated Continental Connection Flight 3407, identified Friday the plane’s crew members. They included: Pilot Capt. Marvin Renslow; 1st Officer Rebecca Shaw; and flight attendants Matilda Quintero and Donna Prisco. An off-duty crew member, who was also on the flight, was identified as Capt. Joseph Zuffoletto.