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'That is our house!': Widow recalls Flight 3407 crash

Karen and Doug Wielinski and their daughter Jill were in different parts of their house on Long Street in Clarence Center on the night of Feb. 12, 2009, when a plane fell from the sky, killing Doug Wielinski, destroying their home and shattering the lives of the couple and their four daughters. This is Karen Wielinski's story of what she remembers of that night, culled from her new book "One on the Ground."

The ground was soft and wet, covered with a combination of paper and wallboard. I had socks on, no shoes, and Jill had nothing on her feet. We kept to the right going toward our neighbor’s house, saw that the way toward Long Street was blocked, and ran to the back of their yard. We raced along the gate around their pool, continued beside trees and fences of other houses, until we ended up on Clarence Center Road.

Considering what I have learned since the crash, I am so thankful that we ran to the right of our house. If we had gone to the left, I am afraid we would have seen images that would have haunted us forever.

I have no idea how much time elapsed between when the plane crashed and Jill and I escaped. We were told there were several explosions after the crash. We never heard them.

Karen Wielinski stands at the memorial to the victims of Flight 3407 and the lot were her home stood on Long St in Clarence Center Tuesday, February 7, 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

At Clarence Center Road, we ran toward Long Street, where I hoped we could find our neighbors.

I knew none of the people standing in a driveway on Long Street near the corner. Jill collapsed on the ground. “That is our house,” I screamed. “Can someone please help my daughter.” That moment was captured by one of the bystanders and appeared on You Tube. You cannot see Jill or me, but you can hear my frantic voice begging for help. It is chilling.

Out of nowhere a neighbor I knew, Paul Beiter, appeared. I will never forget the look on his face.

“What are you doing here?” he asked in disbelief.

“I don’t know where Doug is,” I screamed. Paul guided us into his house. It was such a relief to see him and other neighbors I knew. Looking at the blaze of what once was our home, no one could believe we were standing there.

Again, I asked them to get some medical help for Jill. She and I sat on their stairs. As I looked out the door to the street, I saw a stretcher. Was someone on it? I experienced a small amount of hope. “Is that Doug on the stretcher?”

Karen Wielinski, left, hugs her daughter Jessica Wielinski at the dedication of the Flight 3407 memorial in 2012 at the site of the crash. At right are daughters, Kim Lipiarz and Jill Hohl. (Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News)

Paul went out to check. “No one is on the stretcher,” he reported.

My daughter Kim usually got home from visiting her fiancé Jeff around 11:00, but I was terrified that she might have arrived early and been near the house when the plane crashed. I kept asking Paul’s wife Michele to look and see if Kim’s car was parked in front of the house. She assured me that it was not. I needed to know that Kim was OK and looked in the phone book for Jeff’s family’s phone number. I was in such a state that I could not remember how he spelled his last name. Michele gave me her cell phone to call Kim’s cell. Later I learned that Kim did not answer that call because she did not recognize the number.

A paramedic finally arrived at the Beiters’. He checked Jill and me out. I do not recall when I became aware of throbbing pain in my left shoulder. As a precaution, he placed a brace around my neck.

My mouth felt like a desert. “Could I please have a glass of water?”

“No, not until you are examined in the hospital.”

Daughter's story of 3407 crash: 'I knew I had to get out'

You’re kidding, I thought. The minute he left, I asked Michele for at least an ice cube to suck on.

The three young Beiter girls were huddled together in a corner of the living room, but sprang into action and found shoes for Jill and me.

Michele later told me she had gathered her family when she realized she could feel the heat from the inferno across the street through her living room window. I would also learn that Paul had been looking out his kitchen window when the plane crashed and had witnessed debris flying across the street into his neighbor’s yard.

The paramedics returned and said that Long Street was blocked. Jill and I would have to walk down to the Clarence Center Fire Station and wait for an ambulance. Kathy McGreevy—our neighbor Joe McGreevy’s mother—turned up at the Beiters’. “Would you like me to go with you?” she asked.

Kathy was an acquaintance. I did not know her well. Her daughter had played basketball with Jill, and I occasionally saw her when I was walking. I appreciated her support, and she stayed with us for several hours.

Looking back, I sometimes feel that no one really knew what to do with Jill and me. Less than an hour after crawling out of our destroyed home, there we were casually walking down Long Street, following a paramedic, and stepping over fire hoses and snow piles in borrowed shoes.

I did look at our home before walking down the street. The front of the house was still visible, but would not win any fight to remain erect. Flames wove their way through the window and door as they soared high. It all seemed surreal.

Karen and Doug Wielinski. (Family photo)

The ambulance was still enroute, so we waited inside the fire station. Finally our ride to the hospital arrived. As we were getting settled my friend Kathy McGinley suddenly appeared at the back of the ambulance. We tried to speak and a paramedic demanded that she leave.

“Listen” I shouted. “My husband is probably dead, my house is destroyed, and I want to talk to my friend!”

We were given a few moments and she would later meet us at the hospital.

Because of icy road conditions the ride to Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital seemed to take forever.

We were greeted at the emergency room by a sea of silent doctors and nurses. They were waiting to treat survivors. None would arrive.

At first Jill and I had to go into separate examining rooms. My left shoulder was very sore and it was difficult to lift my arm. As I was wheeled to the x-ray area, I could see television reports of the crash.

“Turn that off!” someone shouted.

Finally I connected with Jeff’s mom. “Is Kim with you?” I asked the second I heard her voice. Her assurance that Kim was safe with Jeff in Clarence Center relieved some of my anxiety.

Kim's Flight 3407 story: 'I had never felt such gripping fear'

FBI agents talked to Jill and me separately. Eventually we were allowed in one room.

Many people were calling the hospital trying to talk to us, including Jess’ boyfriend and my niece. I realized then that I could not wait until the morning to call my out-of-town daughters Jess and Lori. How would I tell them what had happened? Jill told me she would call, but I knew that I was the one who had to make these heartbreaking calls.

An aerial photo of the crash site in Clarence Center. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News file photo)

Jess was with her boyfriend and Lori was with Chris. I was thankful that their boyfriends were there. CNN News reports had already showed them what was happening on Long Street. What did I say to them? I do not recall the exact words: “A plane crashed into the house. We don’t know where Dad is. Kim, Jill, and I are OK. Are you all right?”

Jess' Flight 3407 story: 'Everything seemed so surreal'

Lori's Flight 3407 story: 'My mind could not comprehend the reality'

The two Kathys stayed with Jill and me until Doug’s brother and his wife, Eddie and Maureen, arrived. Again, how do you explain what seems so impossible?

I have no idea when I finally talked to Kim—probably around two am. Although I had been told she was OK, I could not rest until I spoke with her. She was back at Jeff’s house. “Please stay there with him until morning,” I said.

Representatives from the American Red Cross visited, and gave us Target vouchers, and told us we would be taken to the Residence Suites where we could stay until we had other lodgings. We were told to call them for any support we would need. The hospital gave us a set of scrubs, toothbrushes, and toothpaste. I was given a sling to support my shoulder. “It doesn’t seem to be broken, one of the medical people told me, Eddie and Maureen drove us to the hotel.

I think Jill and I just needed to be by ourselves. We clung wordlessly to each other on the bed. Jill slept a bit, but I couldn’t. The realization that Doug was gone and the uncertainty of what would follow kept me awake.

What would become of us?

Day 2: After Flight 3407 crash, uncertainty and a life forever changed

 

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