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On the ground, Lauren Topliffe, 19, was driving on Heise Road off Clarence Center Road with a friend Thursday night when they saw the sky light up before them.

They headed down Clarence Center Road, where all they could see was a fire in an area not far from the Clarence Center Fire Hall.

They were among the earliest eyewitnesses to the scene.

"There was only one other car there -- no sirens yet -- but people were on cell phones running away from it. Then we saw electric sparks and heard another boom," she said.

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Another eyewitness, Tony Tatro, a Clarence resident who was driving on nearby Clarence Center Road, got a look at the plane above him, before he heard it crash.

"It was [flying] nose down, hardly above the treetops, and its left wing was tilted slightly down. I did not see any landing gear. I saw the underbelly of the plane fairly well. There was nothing burning on the plane and no physical damage. Nothing seemed wrong, except it was on a bad path," he said.

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About a dozen homes were evacuated, including Lonnie Hines' home on Long Street.

"Our house is obliterated by smoke," said Hines, who stayed in a hotel Thursday night.

He praised emergency crews for their quick response but said it's unclear whether evacuated families will receive any assistance.

"They're not sure how long it will take to put all the pieces of this puzzle together," said Hines, referring to the federal probe that began this morning at the crash site.

"They told us to pack for three to five days," he said.

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Kathleen Dworak, a Clarence resident who lives about a quarter mile from the crash scene, estimated the flames were 50 to 100 feet high.

"It was just a massive ball of fire. And you couldn't even tell there was a plane on the ground," she said.

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Jaimeelynn Trujillo, who lives behind the crash site and was also evacuated, saw at least one of the occupants of the Long Street house -- the site where the plane crashed.

She witnessed one of the two women inside the home fleeing outdoors to safety.

"I saw her start saying, 'It's my house, it's my house, it's my house.' And then she fell to the ground," Trujillo said.

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John Leamer, a Goodrich Road resident who lives across from the Town of Clarence Highway Department, thought the strange sound he heard outside his window Thursday night might have been a snowplow "that had dropped its plow and was revving its engine."

Then a neighbor called and asked if he and his wife, Flora, could see the fire.

"I looked out through the blinds -- and I could," he said.

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David Luce, who lives about 150 yards from the crash scene on Goodrich Road, was another eyewitness who described the moments before and after the crash.

"It sounded quite loud, and then the sound stopped. Then one or two seconds later, there was a thunderous explosion. I thought something hit our house. It shook our whole house. There was the initial boom, and then these cannon shots -- these loud secondary explosions, and they went on for about 10 minutes."

e-mail: citydesk@buffnews.com