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Survival becomes a miracle

It is the miracle of Flight 3407. There is no other way to put it. Amidst the carnage, out of the wreckage, emerged two improbable survivors of catastrophe: Karen Wielinski and her daughter, Jill.

Look at aerial photos of the blackened ground where Thursday night the Bombardier Dash 8 crashed into the house in Clarence Center. You cannot tell that a house ever existed there. All you can see is the tail section of the plane, charred earth and scattered bits of wood. Yet of the three people in the house when the plane struck, only Doug Wielinski did not survive. His wife and his daughter got out, with little more than scratches.

I cannot believe it. You cannot believe it. DeAnna Hill cannot believe it.

And DeAnna Hill was there.

She lives with her husband, Bruce, and two kids a block from where the plane went down. They were at the scene a minute after hearing the impact. Hill was staring at the fireball, stunned, when a woman standing behind her screamed, "That's my house."

DeAnna Hill figured that the woman and her daughter, who had fallen to the ground, returned home to see the house in flames. They seemed shaken, but not bloody, burned or bruised. The possibility that the two had emerged from the inferno did not enter Hill's mind.

"Not for a second did I think they had escaped from that fire," Hill said. "In my mind, nobody could have gotten out of that house. There was no house. It was just a flaming airplane."

Hill is 32, a nursing student with short, dark hair and a neighborly charm. She is not particularly religious, but what she saw Thursday night seems beyond logical explanation.

"I don't believe in miracles, but this was like a miracle," Hill told me Saturday afternoon. "There was definitely something [inexplicable] that helped them through that. There was no way anyone could have gotten out of there."

We do not have to imagine it. We have seen for ourselves. The scene and Hill's "Oh my God" utterance were captured on a neighbor's cell phone video, and since played countless times on TV news footage.

This is no feel-good story. It is hard to talk about silver linings to this dark cloud, not when the cloud involves 50 lives obliterated -- and hundreds of grieving sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, friends and loved ones.

But if there is one ray of light in this dark night, it is whatever act of God or fate or fortune that spared Karen and Jill Wielinski. Doug Wielinski -- a husband and father -- is gone. The house is destroyed, with every scrap of clothing and possession it contained. But, astoundingly, two people were spared.

What happened at 6038 Long St. is the local equivalent of the two cops at the World Trade Center, rescued from the rubble hours after the towers fell atop them. The larger story is grim. The smaller picture gives us something to cling to, to be grateful for, amidst the grief and devastation.

There must have been a few seconds between the instant of impact and the plane exploding. That is the only apparent explanation for the survival of mother and daughter. Hill and others say there were a series of explosions in the moments after the crash. Karen Wielinski told WBEN radio that the ceiling came down on her, and she crawled outside to find her daughter standing there.

DeAnna Hill has not slept much since the night of the crash. She keeps hearing Karen Wielinski screaming, "Someone help my daughter." She keeps seeing Jill Wielinski, wrapped in her mother's arms, then collapsing in shock. It all seems surreal, unbelievable. Like a scene from a movie. Like a piece of a miracle.


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