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A prayer for our community

How does a community wrap its arms around itself?

Continental Connection Flight 3407. Newark to Buffalo. The name and number are forever set in the fixed concrete of history, in the frozen pain in our souls.

In a gruesome fireball, a plane filled with our neighbors is down. A house in Clarence is obliterated. Fifty people are dead. Fifty people, many of whom walked the same streets we do, shopped at the same stores, sent their kids to the same schools.

As the days pass, we will learn their names and we will hear about their lives. But there is a larger truth that, in a sense, will frame every one of those details: We are them, and they are us.

Buffalo is a city in name, a small town at heart. Most of the people on this plane were, to a lot of us, a friend, a co-worker, or a neighbor.

Those of us who are more than a few degrees of separation from the victims still are connected to them by our shared hopes and dreams for this community. We all want to see Buffalo someday rise out of the economic mire. We all know the meaning, in all of its layers, of Wide Right.

Flight 3407. It is too much loss to fathom. It is too much pain to comprehend. It is too much grief to bear.

If this had been a small plane, if this had been a few deaths instead of 50, the tragedy still would have been front-page news. Increase that hypothetical loss exponentially, multiply the grief, factor in the agony of the victims' loved ones, and it adds up to something unfathomable.

It is too much to digest. It is too large to wrap our arms of comprehension around.

We hear details of ice on the plane's wings and wing flaps shifted for descent and landing gear lowered -- and then a sudden pitch and roll. It will be weeks before the cause of the crash is determined. But the possibility that a simple, weather-related mechanical malfunction -- of cables frozen or controls unresponsive or de-icers inoperative -- caused the obliteration of this much life is surreal. The flesh-and-blood consequence seems too monumental to chalk up to malfunctioning cables or ineffectual fluids or a coating of ice.

One official who got close to the crash scene told me he saw airline seats scattered in the debris, and human limbs. Hours later, he seemed stunned, almost disbelieving.

We are stunned as a community. The cumulative loss has taken a piece of our collective heart. For many, the pain is personal. Hundreds of mourners filled the pews for Friday's prayer service at Clarence's Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church. Among those seeking solace in shared grief was Michele Potter.

She and Doug Wielinski worked together at the old Outokumpu American Brass factory. Flight 3407 landed on Wielinski's house. His wife, Karen, and daughter, Jill -- in one of the tragedy's small miracles -- somehow got out. Doug did not.

Michele Potter wiped tears as she talked about the man who collected sports memorabilia, loved antique furniture and spoke at high school assemblies about his service in Vietnam. When the elderly woman across the street needed something fixed at her house, Doug Wielinski grabbed his tool box.

"He was that kind of guy," said Potter, hunching her shoulders against the cold in the church parking lot. "He was just full of information, such an interesting person . . . I just feel helpless. You can't do anything but pray."

That is how this feels. This is what this disaster is about. Take Doug Wielinski, absorb his life and death, and multiply by 50.

It is too much pain to process. It is too much grief to fathom. It is too much hurt to heal. It is beyond us. It is part of us.

One and the same. Now, and forever.



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