Five years after Continental Connection Flight 3407 came crashing down upon a home in Clarence Center, more than 200 people touched by the tragedy – from family members to firefighters to average Buffalo folk who don’t let their neighbors suffer alone – gathered Wednesday for a memorial service and candlelight vigil that sought to turn pain into poetry.
Filling the pews of Zion Lutheran Church on Clarence Center Road, the crowd heard not so much from the family members of the people who died that night as they did from others in the community who supported them after the crash: neighbors, grief counselors and first responders.
Yet the words that seemed to resonate the most were the words of those that lost the most – the words, for example, of Eva Friedner and Dana Wehle, who lost their sister, Susan Wehle, on that icy night a half-decade ago and who wrote a poem called “Sisters” that was read at the memorial service.
The crowd remained hushed as Sheldon Soman, a friend of the family, read the poem, which included the following verse:
What five-year echoes dance in this void?
Memories, individual and combined,
Photos blending tears, smiles, laughter;
A scarf, a book, a song.
After the memorial service, the families and guests walked a quarter-mile to the crash site in a candlelight procession culminating in a vigil where the names of all the crash victims were read. Afterward, as a bell tolled 51 times, a plane descended slowly and safely toward Buffalo Niagara International Airport a few miles away.
Inside the church a while earlier, it became clear that the crash had shaken many people beyond those who lost loved ones.
“After the crash, an overwhelming sadness gripped me,” said Michele Beiter, who lived near the crash site. “I didn’t know how to move on. I looked up each and every passenger on the Internet. I read their bios for days. And when I saw people visiting the site, I wanted to tell them: ‘Your person was really neat.’ ”
Before long, Beiter and her husband, Paul, knew what to do. They started tending to the crash site. They mowed the grass.Paul Beiter and Billy Wielinski -- whose brother, Doug, died in his home when the plane crashed into it -- placed a flag on the site, and Michele would straighten it went askew. They did what they could to help Karen Wielinski, who escaped from the burning home where her husband died.
The family members – who had previously kept their anniversary services private – said actions like that were why they wanted the public to attend the fifth-year commemoration.
“We wanted to not just remember our lost loved ones, but also to remember the community that stood by our side and walked us through this,” said John Kausner, whose daughter, Ellyce, was killed in the crash. “We’ve never been alone.” That has been true since the night of the crash, when Sister Martha Olszewski and other volunteer mental health counselors from the Red Cross rushed to Clarence to aid the surviving families.
Reflecting on the crash five years later, Olszewski marveled at the work the families group did to pass aviation safety legislation in Congress.
“They went to work for safety for each and every one of us,” she said. “For that, we all need to be thankful.”
And while the poems of family members stood out, the prose of others touched by the tragedy was, on occasion, almost as poetic.
Reflecting on the 50 people – including a pregnant woman – who died that night, Pastor Steve Biegner quoted Ecclesiastes and paraphrased the message of Scripture in modern terms.
“We will see them again,” said Biegner, a chaplain for volunteer fire departments that were involved in responding to the crash. “We give you thanks, Lord, for that eternal promise.”
The pews were filled with family members of the crash victims clad in their signature red, but Friedner and Wehle could not attend. Still, they wanted to contribute, so they wrote a poem, trading lines via email.
“She would write a line, then she would add two lines, then I would send back three lines,” said Friedner, of Milford, Mass.
“I looked at it as another kind of tool to move us through the mourning process,” said Wehle, a psychotherapist who works with patients looking to cope with loss and bereavement.
Wielinski wrote a poem, too, which was published on the back of the program for Wednesday’s memorial service.
Her poem reflects how the crash changed her life – and how, after five years, it’s important to focus not so much on loss as on fond memories:
Recall the joy
they always found
in simply living –
enjoying sight and sound.
They would frown
and shake their head
if we constantly
were filled with dread.
“It’s really about how big a part of me Doug still is,” Wielinski said. “He’s gone, but will always be part of the fabric of my life.”
Wielinski’s life, and that of her daughter, Jill, were upended like no one else’s five years ago, as they found themselves not only losing the husband and father they loved, but also the home they enjoyed together.
The loss was overwhelming, but step by step and day by day, Wielinski worked to cope with her grief. When the memorial at the crash site was completed in 2012, she visited and mapped out where the rooms of her home were, and sat there to contemplate all that happened.
And on Wednesday, for the first time, she found herself preparing to attend the memorial service and candlelight vigil.
“I never thought I was ready for that, and I still don’t know how I will feel about it,” she said before the memorial service. “But this year, I just feel I need to be there and feel Doug’s spirit there at that exact time. I just need it for my own spirits.”
So there she was, somber-faced, electric candle in hand in the cold night air in the place she lived and the place her husband died.
And when the ceremony ended, she didn’t retreat to Long Street like everyone else. Instead, she and her friend, Sue Muchow, trudged through the snow behind the memorial.
“I wanted to retrace the steps that Jill and I took that night and how we left the property,” she said later.
Clarence Center Road seemed a lot closer than it did when she was running away from her burning home five years ago, and the ground was far snowier – so snowy, in fact, that the walking wasn’t easy.
“I felt like I could hear Doug laughing with me” she said as she trudged through the snow. “I could hear him saying, ‘What is this?’ It uplifted me. I’m glad I did it.”