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Local Irish dancers have narrow escape Group's decision to take earlier Newark flight is a life saver

Two young Irish dancing champions and their chaperones were supposed to be on Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo on Thursday night.

Luckily, they caught an earlier flight instead.

That is what is dominating the thoughts of Mary Kay Heneghan, of Orchard Park, in the wake of the horrific crash of Flight 3407 in Clarence Center.

Heneghan, owner of Rince Na Tierna School of Irish Dance, was returning from Ireland with Tracy Dargan and Dargan's daughters, 12-year-old Fiona and 14-year-old Kevinah. Heneghan's mother, Mary, also went on the trip.

She had taken the girls to Killarney to compete in the All Ireland Dance Championships. Fiona finished second in the girls 12-under age group and Kevinah sixth in the 15-unders.

They left Shannon Airport at 9 a.m. Thursday -- 4 a.m. EST -- on a flight that was supposed to take six hours and 45 minutes; they were on the ground, Heneghan estimates, at about 9:30 a.m., or 75 to 90 minutes early.

Heneghan said she always books long layovers for her frequent flights to Ireland so she, her dancers and her mother, who walks with a cane, don't have to rush to the gate in the not unusual event of a flight delay.

Their ticketed connection, Flight 3407, wasn't scheduled to leave Newark until 7:10 p.m. so their early arrival made this layover more than nine hours.

When Heneghan asked Continental to put her group on one of the three earlier connections heading to Buffalo in the late morning or afternoon, she was told the change would cost $50 per person. At first the group decided to get lunch and hang out but shortly thereafter, when flights to Buffalo and Rochester began to be canceled, Mrs. Dargan insisted they leave early. She had to be back Friday to her job as a school nurse in Williamsville and didn't want to take a chance that 3407, the last flight to Buffalo, wouldn't take off.

The airline, concerned about the growing number of stranded passengers, waived the $50 fee and put them on a 2:40 p.m. flight but warned their baggage might not make it.

As they waited at the gate for the plane to pull away, Fiona spotted her and her sister's polka dot suitcases.

"She said 'There's our luggage' and I said we were lucking out," Heneghan said. "I had no idea how lucky we were."

Even though their plane was larger than the one used in Flight 3407, "The takeoff was awful, I thought the wing was going to touch the ground," Heneghan said. The rest of the flight, though delayed by more than an hour due to skies congested with planes unable to land because of the weather, was uneventful and the landing in Buffalo was soft and smooth.

Heneghan went home, ate Chinese food, did laundry and went to bed.

She was awakened at 5 a.m. by the ringing of her cell phone. Dance instructors in Ireland, knowing her flight plan, were texting to see if she was OK. She turned on the TV and saw the crashed plane was the one she was to have been on.

"I was sick to my stomach. I called my mother first and then I called Tracy; she was crying she was so upset."

The incident has left Heneghan wondering if she still wants to be a frequent flier.

"I'm one of those people who doesn't even drive the Skyway," she said. "I'm flying to Phoenix on Thursday, and I'm debating whether to go or not."

e-mail: fdoyle@buffnews.com

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