When Clarence Center Fire Chief David Case heard the piercing tones of his fire radio at 10:20 p.m. Thursday, followed by a verbal report that a plane had hit a house in this quiet hamlet, his reaction was disbelief.
"What did he just say?'" Case asked his wife, Laura.
A plane had struck a house.
Case, who has headed the department for four years, grabbed his coat, put on his shoes and set off to the scene where Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed into a single-family house at 6038 Long St., a peaceful suburban street near the Clarence Center Fire Hall.
As Case jumped into his chief's vehicle and sped to the scene a quarter of a mile away, his mind was racing.
"Not knowing what we were up against, I made the call to fire control to call all area fire companies to be on alert, and I would give them a better assessment as I got on location," Case said.
Case pictured a small, two- or four-seat aircraft. He was not prepared for what he'd find.
"To get there and see the gigantic tail and see a plane sticking out of the rubble," he said, "that was kind of shocking."
"When I got on location and saw what I saw, I radioed for all area equipment to report to Clarence Center Fire Station to receive their orders."
The call for assistance was answered by crews as close as Clarence and as far away as Brighton in the Town of Tonawanda.
Patrick Casilio, deputy town supervisor of Clarence and a longtime member of the Clarence Volunteer Fire Co., was among those to answer the call.
When he arrived on the scene, all Casilio saw was "a big ball of fire about 30 to 40 feet in the air" and the tail section of the plane, dark against the leaping, orange-red flames.
Casilio realized the plane was a large one, and it was unlikely that anyone on board had survived the fiery crash. "I saw the big tail section of the plane and knew a lot of people had perished," he said.
The house was gone.
"There was no recognition of a house at all," he said. "When the plane hit the house, the house disintegrated. You could absolutely not make out there was a house. There were no doors, no windows, no roof."
"If you didn't know there was a house there, you wouldn't have recognized it as a house," Case added. "It was completely gone."
The fireball, fed by the burning jet fuel, created a far larger and far more dangerous situation than those normally handled by the small Clarence Center Fire Co. Founded more than 100 years ago, the department is best known for its annual Labor Day Fair, complete with a fire department demolition derby, chowder sales and firefighters' parade.
But training kicked in, Case said, because the steps that had to be taken were the same as those involving something as small as a car fire.
"You do what you're trained to do," Case said. "You're not trained, obviously, for an airplane into a building, but when it does happen, instincts take over. You work as a group and you get the job done."
Because there was little chance that anyone on the plane had survived the crash and fireball, under Case's command, the firefighters' focus shifted to using streams of water to cool the houses on each side and prevent them from catching fire as a result of the intense heat of the burning jet fuel.
The giant wall of fire was intense and hot, unlike anything Case had ever felt before.
"I felt overwhelmed," he said, "but at the same time I had to get water on this fire as soon as I could and protect the two exposures."
After spending more than 12 hours on the scene, both Case and Casilio were struggling to describe the incredible sight of one structure in a row of houses struck so directly and obliterated so totally by the airplane.
"There was a garage in the back that was still standing, remarkably unscathed," Case said. "The house looked like it leaned over and fell backward. The plane kind of went into the front of the house."
"Initially, I was surprised how large the plane was and the fact the plane had just hit that house and not hit anything else," Casilio said. "It seems like it dropped right out of the sky on top of the house."
Both Case and Casilio praised their fellow volunteers from Clarence Center and Clarence, who were assisted by crews from Newstead, Akron, Harris Hill, Rapids, East Amherst, Main Transit, Swormville, North Amherst, Millgrove, Bowmansville, the Village of Lancaster, Brighton, and the Buffalo Niagara International Airport's Aircraft Rescue Firefighter unit.
"I had a debriefing with my firefighters and told them they did the best job they could possibly do in the situation they were given," Case said. "I'm very proud of them."
Late Friday morning, Case, a welder, returned to his home, where he continued to watch the coverage on television. What he had just witnessed was beginning to sink in.
"It's starting to," said Case, 36. "There's still a nonbelief, if you will, that this actually happened."
News Staff Reporter Niki Cervantes contributed to this report.
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