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Heartbroken relatives try to absorb shock

Dazed family members and friends of loved ones killed in Continental Connection Flight 3407 huddled in small groups inside the Indigo Hotel in Amherst Friday.

They were still trying to absorb what was unthinkable just hours before.

Standing in hallways and the hospitality room were also a number of Continental Airlines employees mourning the loss of their comrades. Four on-duty and one off-duty crew members were among the 49 people who perished on the Continental Express airplane.

Those in the hotel -- most of whom had expected to greet loved ones on the Buffalo-bound plane from Newark Thursday night -- instead found themselves early in the morning inside Cheektowaga Senior Citizen Center. They arrived by bus at around 3:30 a.m., and departed around noon, after being visited by Gov. David A. Paterson and local politicians, including Erie County Executive Chris Collins and Mayor Byron W. Brown.

The Rev. Angel L. Gauthier, of Prince of Peace Christian Church in Buffalo, who met with families inside the senior center, said overwhelming sadness filled the air.

"Walking in there was like being in the valley of suffering," said Gauthier, also a chaplain with the Buffalo police and fire departments. "I was sharing a thought with a family member who lost a grandson, and he couldn't stop weeping. All I did was hug him and cry with him.

"I tell you," Gauthier said, "It's going to be a day of mourning for all of us in Western New York, and all over the nation."

Tight security kept family members from the media, as the Erie County Sheriff's Office and area police cordoned off entry.

The governor shared stories of human dignity and heart-breaking sorrow at a news conference after meeting with the mourners.

Paterson said he was so impressed with the demeanor of a man who approached him to speak that it came as a shock when he learned he had lost his daughter on the flight.

Brown also was impressed by the man. After he stepped away, the mayor learned of the man's loss, and felt humbled to be in the presence of someone with such composure and selflessness.

"He was so poised, warm and dignified," the mayor said.

Brown was approached a moment later by two burly men who also wanted to thank him for being at the center.

"The one guy took out his City of Buffalo identification and said, 'I'm one of yours,' " Brown recalled of the encounter. "He was with his brother and he told me, 'I wanted to let you know my fiancee was on that plane.' "

At that point, the city worker broke down, and the mayor tried to provide what comfort he could.

"I told him I was sorry, and that I'd be praying for him," Brown said.

And though law enforcement officers, ranging from FBI agents, state police and other federal investigators, were at the center, they found themselves putting aside investigatory questions to provide comfort and compassion to the families and friends of the loved ones, according to those in the room.

That measure of caring also was demonstrated by clergy, counselors and regular citizens, Paterson said, calling their compassion "a silver lining around a very dark tragedy."

The governor noted how different things were at the recent "Miracle on the Hudson," when a plane narrowly escaped a similar fate nearly a month ago.

"We're all connected, and we find out how connected we are on days like this. We try to love our neighbors as we would love ourselves, but today we love our neighbors because we realize they are ourselves," Paterson said.

As for the families of the deceased, some members have expressed an interest in wanting to visit the crash scene, but that will not happen immediately, according to Collins.

Arrangements, however, are being made to show the relatives aerial photographs that Collins took during a helicopter flight Friday morning above the scene.

The county executive said he understands the need of the families to want to see what happened.

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