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Five years after losing their loved ones in a preventable plane crash, the Families of Continental Flight 3407 tonight will find themselves back again in the same place, at a memorial service in Clarence Center and a candlelight vigil at what once was a happy home but that’s now a memorial to the victims.

This time, for the first time, they have invited members of the public to join them on the anniversary of the crash – while all the while acknowledging that the pain they feel, even now, is intensely private and always present.

“We feel that with the passage of five years, we’ve gained enough perspective to realize that this tragedy happened to the whole community, and not just us,” said Marilyn Kausner, whose daughter, Ellyce, was killed in the crash. “We thought that if anything positive could come out of this fifth anniversary, it would be to recognize the positive response of the community and how much it means to us.”

The 8 p.m. memorial service at Zion Lutheran Church, 9535 Clarence Center Road, will feature speeches from a minister, emergency responders and others involved in the aftermath of the crash, which claimed the lives of 50 people, including a pregnant woman.

Afterward, at 10 p.m., the families and others who attend the service will walk, electric candles in hand, to the crash site at 6038 Long St.

It’s a walk that many have made several times before, although a contingent of dozens of Flight 3407 family members came to Washington on last year’s anniversary to press the government to implement the tough new aviation safety law that Congress passed in the wake of the tragedy on the night of Feb. 12, 2009.

And yet it’s still a walk that’s too difficult for some.

“I’ve never been to a vigil,” said Robin Tolsma, whose husband, Darren, was killed in the crash. “I’ve been afraid to.”

Tolsma said she prefers spending the anniversary of the crash at home with her son and daughter. “We love to tell his stories and keep his memory alive that way,” she said.

While Tolsma said that she and her family have made “huge strides” in recovering from their loss, she is one of several family members who said the grief will never disappear.

“It will hit you between the eyes out of the blue,” she said. “You’ll hear a song on the radio, or see someone walking the way he walked, and it just brings it all back.”

For many family members, the anniversary of the crash – and particularly a milestone such as five years – inevitably reignites the pain.

“It really hasn’t changed,” said Tina Siniscalco, whose sister, Mary Julia Abraham, died in the crash. “Every year, it brings back that night like it’s happening all over again. It’s awful.”

Kathy Johnston, whose husband, Kevin, was one of the crash victims, said she takes solace in the fact that after federal investigators blamed the tragedy on pilot error, the families group pushed Congress into passing the aviation safety law. She also credits the other members of the families group for helping her cope with her grief.

“Personally, I need to be with my Flight 3407 family on the anniversary,” she said. “I’ve gotten to where I am in life because of them.”

Nevertheless, Johnston added: “I feel like this is the toughest year yet, and I can’t figure out why. I look back, and it’s been five years now since I have talked to Kevin, five years seen I’ve seen him. His pictures are starting to look dated to me now. It’s strange. In some ways, it seems like it just happened, yet in some ways it seems so long ago.”

Several family members noted the fact that their loss had left life’s most joyous moments feeling bittersweet.

“I look at my nieces and nephews and think about how much Dawn has missed in seeing them grow into the wonderful young adults that they have become over these past five years,” said Michael Monachino, whose wife was killed in the crash.

Meanwhile, Justine Krasuski noted that her late husband, Jerry, is missing out on enjoying time with his grandchildren – and that she feels the anxiety building inside every year as the anniversary of the crash approaches.

“It’s been five years, but it could be five months to me,” she said.

Others said, though, that amid the grief, they’re learning to accentuate the positive.

Citing the aviation safety law that will always be Flight 3407’s legacy, Lynn Kushner – who lost her daughter, Beth Ann Kushner, in the crash – said: “I think we did a lot of good.”

Denise Perry, whose son, Johnathan, was killed in the crash, agreed, adding: “We try to remember our happy times. You laugh at the things he did and said and you say: ‘Oh, Johnathan really would have loved this.’ We hold on to those memories. It gives us comfort. It’s all we have.”

The family members take comfort, too, in the support they received from the Buffalo community in the aftermath of the crash – which is why, they say, the community focus of tonight’s memorial service is so important.

“We’ve had a lot of people helping us,” Kushner said, “and we need to tell them that we appreciate everything everybody did.”

email: jzremski@buffalonews.com