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Dozens comb scorched site Surreal landscape a hive of activity as probe evolves 15 bodies are recovered; some passengers in rear of plane were still strapped in

The blue and white airplane tail leans against a slender pine tree. It is about all that remains recognizable from Flight 3407.

And there is absolutely nothing left of the Wielinski family home where the plane crashed and burned in a fireball Thursday night.

A Buffalo News reporter drove past the site Saturday, struck by the haunting images.

More than 100 investigators and emergency personnel, many dressed from head to foot in white hazmat suits, walk amid blackened ruins of plane and home where 50 people died. A few of the workers unlock the belts that hold some of the dead still in their seats in the rear of the plane's fuselage.

So far, 15 bodies have been recovered, although authorities say it may be four days before all human remains are recovered.

It is at once a stunning and shocking sight to see so many workers gathered in such a confined area, less than a third of an acre, painstakingly searching through the charred rubble.

Other emergency personnel, some in firefighter turnout gear, some in police uniforms protecting the perimeter, and still others in jackets that say "FBI" and "Medical Examiner," all seem to have a coordinated sense of purpose amid the chaos of the wreckage.

No one gets in the way of the others. There seems to be a dutiful, somber camaraderie.

"It will become easier now that we learned how to do this," said Dr. Anthony J. Billittier IV, Erie County's health commissioner.

These workers are performing a task few others have the stomach to do, but they know how much it means to the victims' families that want to be able to lay their loved ones to final rest with dignity.

Emergency vehicles packed with investigative equipment are parked up and down Clarence's Long Street, which isn't a very long street.

Workers encountered a frozen scene Saturday morning, caused in part by all of the water used to douse the fireball Thursday night.

Portable heaters thaw the site, and workers pump water from what had been the basement.

"What's in the basement, it's hard to know at this point," Billittier said. "The cold has been a challenge for us."

But the heat Thursday from the explosive crash was intense.

Flames fed by airplane fuel and natural gas destroyed most of the passenger cabin, and the fiercest impact was experienced in the cockpit.

"The crew was badly burned, but the remains of most were still intact. Toward the rear of the plane, it was in good shape. Some of the people were still sitting with their seat belts on," said a law enforcement official at the scene Saturday.

He shares the grim image not to be morbid, but to make a point that the pilot somehow managed to right the plane from its erratic descent just before the crash.

"If the pilot had only another thousand feet, he might have come out of it," the official said, shaking his head in despair at what can never be changed.

"The fuselage still has the shape of a tube. But toward the front, there's nothing left but twisted metal framing. The way the plane came down, it dropped onto the left rear roof of the house," he says.

The impact was devastating.

"We found a big cast-iron radiator that was thrown from the house and landed on a front lawn across the street," said the official, who asked that his name be withheld. "When the plane crashed, it sent up mud splatters onto the roofs of two nearby houses."

And what he and other workers could not help noticing is that what was left of the plane's fuselage was pointed away from the direction of Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga, an indication of how out of control the plane was in its last seconds of flight.

The scene with so many people joining together to do their jobs, is mesmerizing, a flourishing beehive in the chill of a winter day.

Near the mound of ash and burned debris is a domed tent that is one of the hive's busiest cells.

"What's that?" the law enforcer is asked.

"Oh, that's the temporary morgue," the officer answers, his voice trailing off as he gazes at the tan-colored tent.

There is a great deal of respect among those working here, but it is a difficult task.

And to that, Billittier also shed some light.

"People who work in the Medical Examiner's office have seen lots of things. Maybe they haven't seen as much of it at one time," he says of the scope of the crash.

The recovered bodies are taken from the tent morgue two at time and placed into transport vans that are driven with a police escort to the Erie County Medical Examiner's office in Buffalo, where autopsies are performed.

Beginning today, as many as 40 more specially trained mortuary experts from as far away as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands will be assisting.

They bring with them $2.8 million worth of equipment and supplies, including X-ray machines, masks, gowns, autopsy tables -- in short, anything needed for a portable morgue.

That's because even the victims may provide information to help create a more comprehensive picture of what happened on Flight 3407.

A few streets away on Goodrich Road, 13-year-old Katie Smith says she was about to go to bed when she heard the noise of the plane falling from the sky Thursday night.

"I heard the plane and looked out my bedroom window and heard a pop and saw reddish-orange glow," she said.

Ken Smith, her father, said he also heard the pop and guessed that an airplane engine had blown.

"Then six or seven seconds later, I heard the crash," Smith said.

He and his daughter and other neighbors have given statements to FBI agents combing the neighborhood.

Others, like Marcia Powers and Doug Errick, also recall hearing what they believe was engine trouble.

"It was around 10:20 p.m., and I jumped right up and said to my wife that plane's way too low. There was an inconsistency in the engines. It was an erratic sound. Then I heard the boom and looked out my window and saw a pink glow in the sky," Errick says.

Authorities have said the crew did not report any engine problems but did comment on ice on the plane.

Powers also heard the plane and wondered, at first, if it was a snowplow driving by. But she instantly ruled that out.

"No, it sounds like an engine fluttering. Then I heard a boom, and that was when we came outside and saw flames," Powers says. "We went over to Long Street and heard screams. It was horrible. It smelled almost like the smoke you get from burning tires."

Though these folks are only a few blocks from the crash site, it might as well be miles away, because Long Street will remain closed to the outside world for days as the workers methodically untangle the tragedy.

News Staff Reporter Patrick Lakamp contributed to this report.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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