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Sean Kirst: Writing about an unimaginable horror provides salve for healing

Rick Ohler sees writing as a means of testament and healing. He's taught adult courses in writing for many years in East Aurora. The way he gets rolling, at the beginning of a new session, is to ask students what topic they hope to write about.

Seven years ago, on a snowy January night, his spring writing course started in typical fashion. Some of the students were regulars. Others were newcomers. They were all asked to describe a theme. Maybe it was a childhood memory, or a beloved pet, or a quiet struggle in their lives.

This continued until the question arrived at a woman Ohler had never met. To this day, he recalls exactly what she told the class, a tale he later shared in the foreword to her book.

"You've all heard of Flight 3407," she said. "Well, that was my house the plane crashed into, and that was my husband who was killed."

There was an instant of electric silence. Karen Wielinski had just moved to East Aurora, where she eventually settled after living for years on Long Street in Clarence Center.

On Feb. 12, 2009, a typical evening in an everyday Buffalo life, she was home with her husband, Doug, and their daughter Jill.

Wielinski recognized the rumble of an approaching plane, until the sound became something she hopes no one else will ever hear.

Continental Flight 3407 exploded into her house. Wielinski was buried in debris. She had to dig her way out of the rubble. Once she emerged, the sight of her daughter, crying amid the ruins, helped her find the strength and sense of purpose to escape amid the shock.

To the best of her knowledge, her husband was one room away from her at the instant of impact. Fifty people died. All but one were crew or passengers. For dozens of families, there was a shattering landscape of disbelief and sorrow, and Wielinski was sometimes troubled by the way the disaster was summarized, time and again, in the media.

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"I felt sometimes that Doug was almost an afterthought," Wielinski said.

That was the feeling she brought with her to that first writing class. That belief turned into both a literary mission and the title of her first book, published last year.

"One on the Ground."

"I sincerely believe I would never have written it without Rick or the writing group," she said.

Those words mean everything to Ohler. What Wielinski accomplished, the way she found her voice, is why he started the classes to begin with.

A major part of writing, to Ohler, is humility, the idea that if you work at it, you can always write just a little better. More than 30 years ago, he went to the people in charge of continuing education classes in East Aurora and asked if they had an introductory writing course or two that he might take.

They didn't. Dan Brunson, who ran those programs, offered a solution.

Look, Brunson said: Why don't you start a writing class?

Ohler was a teacher and a house painter. He'd spent years writing columns for the East Aurora Advertiser, warm and wistful vignettes about his community as he remembered it from childhood, or as it is today.

Ohler thought it over, then agreed. He saw himself less as an instructor than as a moderator. By teaching, through that constant back and forth, he could find a way to learn while maybe helping other writers to get started.

"We're all people, and we're all flawed, and we're all trying to figure out how it works," he said. "If you can do it with writing, maybe you can do something for yourself and the people around you, and maybe you can leave a gift to your children and grandchildren, and for great-grandchildren you might never even see."

Decades later, those classes are still going at the Town of Aurora Senior Center. Ohler, 67, now coordinates those gatherings on his own, but the goal remains the same. About 30 adults attend two different sessions, and Ohler guarantees that "this isn’t the kind of class where you're going to get beat up, where people are going to rip your stuff apart."

The idea is helping everyday people who want to write find the strength and belief to do it.

That is why Wielinski signed up, and then stayed.

Karen Wielinski on the day her book, 'One on the Ground,' was released. (Family photo)

This month is the seventh anniversary of her first class. She had recently arrived in East Aurora, and she was still reeling from losing many anchors in her life.

"I needed something to keep busy," she said.

Still, another factor was at work beneath it all. From the time she was a child, she'd always wanted to write.

Most important, in an urgent and almost untouchable way, she had something she needed to say.

"I felt as if I kept everything in my head, I would have exploded," Wielinski said.

The result was "One on the Ground." That project was not really in her mind when she began, but it took shape as her East Aurora classmates served as informal editors and advisers.

Ohler, for his part, became a friend and mentor. Even after years of hearing people work through tales of suffering and loss, Wielinski's story, as Ohler puts it, "blew everyone away."

She spends two searing pages deep in the book recalling the instant of collision, a choice of placement made in counsel with other students, who thought the account was most powerful when she built up to it. The dominant theme, the one that clearly drives her, is the one she returns to when you speak to her at length.

Wielinski has spent almost a decade coming to terms with the absence of her husband.

Doug Wielinski loved his family with fierce dedication. He was a Vietnam veteran, a distance runner who rejoiced and suffered with the Buffalo Bills. He proposed to her above the whirlpool at Niagara Falls, and his University at Buffalo class ring — found in the rubble — is always on her finger.

The manuscript, five years in the making, gave her a chance to fully contemplate what that ring means, an intimate symbol of so many lives lost in one instant. She is a regular at Ohler's gatherings, and details that at first seemed almost unspeakable – every memory, like her few surviving photographs, carried the scent of ash — seem more bearable when raised in the framework of the class.

"She's the one who said you have two choices," Ohler said. "You either say this is it, I'm over, I'm done, or you pick up the pieces and see what it is that you do next."

In quiet ways, he has witnessed that same choice with many others.

"These aren't all happy stories," he said of the tales students share in the group. "A lot of them are ugly stories, told by people who need a chance to say what they want to say."

He remembers one woman, years ago, who said she wanted to read something that night. She did not want it to be critiqued. She never wanted to discuss it again.

She read the piece. The class honored her request.

As far as Ohler was concerned, that moment rose toward the highest purpose of writing.

Karen Wielinski at the memorial to the victims of Flight 3407, on the lot where her home once stood on Long Street in Clarence Center. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

He hardly envisions what he does as work. After each session, he often joins his students for a few beers at Wallenwein's Hotel, an East Aurora institution where Ohler is a regular. He met his significant other, Kateri Ewing, through the writing classes. His students inspire him, reminding him of why he cared so much about writing to begin with.

"We've got Facebook and Twitter and everything else, and we like to think we know people more than ever," Ohler said, "but you don't really know them until you've sat with them and shared their stories."

Wielinski, for her part, is again attending classes. While the ninth anniversary of the crash approaches, this one — in at least one basic way — is different for her.

She will always grieve for her husband. It took years to go through the tattered remnants of much of their household, packed in boxes, and the place where their home stood is now the site of a memorial. If she allowed herself to see it in this way, she could define her entire world by what disappeared that night.

Wielinski doesn't. She laughs easily and speaks with grace of events that would shake the rest of us. Solace lies in her four daughters and all that she protects in memory, and she still remembers when she touched her book for the first time, words and passion giving life again to everything she'd lost.

"I just love the idea," Wielinski said, "that it's all in one place."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.   

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