They moved briskly from the buses, often two abreast, young and old, some clutching flowers, others teddy bears. All were on a solemn mission Monday to visit for the first time the Clarence Center site where their loved ones died on Flight 3407.
What they saw were scorched debris, torn fuselage, a gutted airplane engine and four front steps leading to a house that is no more at 6038 Long St., the place where the plane crashed Thursday night and exploded into a fireball.
Since Friday, family members had expressed a desire to view the crash scene. Beneath Monday's cold blue afternoon sky, they spent about an hour at the tragic location.
And when they boarded the six big tour buses and two smaller vans to be escorted away by several police vehicles, the more than 100 mourners clearly had left behind part of themselves.
Red roses were placed in the top holes of the plastic orange perimeter fence; still more roses and bouquets of flowers were placed in a semicircle inside the site.
Authorities also allowed a handful of journalists to view the site after the families were taken back to their hotels, as emergency workers resumed their jobs of collecting evidence.
The roar of generators filled the air, and a backhoe's mechanical arm clawed and lifted the shell of an engine -- scorched metal hanging from it -- to the edge of the lot for a close inspection by investigators. Bobcats lumbered about, smoothing the surface of the 100- by 200-foot residential property, where Karen and Doug Wielinski's two-story home once stood.
Closer to the street, the plane's landing gear was set down by a mailbox that still bore the address "6038" on its side. Next to the four front steps, investigators examined another piece of the plane, its white fuselage.
A big silver trailer, the heavy equipment, workers shoveling debris into trash cans, the voices of dozens of FBI agents, state police, National Safety Transportation Board personnel and other investigators -- some of them climbing onto the 27-foot-high tail of the airplane at the back of the lot -- all of it merged into a scene reminiscent of a construction site.
"It's holy ground now," said Sibyl Burke of Akron, who stopped by a police barricade near the crash site perimeter with her daughter Ann Hess after attending an interfaith prayer service for the victims.
"You struggle with wanting to know where your loved ones took their last breath," said Hess, who lives in Clarence Center. She and her mother know better than most.
Two years ago, their brother and son -- Christopher Cottle, a Tucson, Ariz., convenience store clerk -- was fatally shot while trying to stop thieves from stealing beer.
Since the crash, Hess said, she has struggled with the idea of visiting the scene. "I've been trying to avoid the news, but we have a friend whose sister was on the plane," she said.
John Gillick, a clinical psychologist who is a retired manager of the Buffalo Veterans Affairs Clinical Health Services, said the sites of tragedies attract individuals for different reasons.
"People want to go out and take a look at tragic events for comparative purposes because it reassures them that they are safe," Gillick said.
Others who had suffered through such experiences "are sensitized to tragedy, and they are only comfortable when they are hyper vigilant," he said.
For those who feel a need to be part of the unfolding events, Gillick suggested an appropriate response would be to contact the Red Cross and volunteer their services.
As for the relatives of those who died in the crash, Gillick said Monday's visit can help with mourning. "It's an action they can take instead of being immobilized," he said. "It provides them with a sense of connection."
Soon after the family members visited the site, they issued this statement:
"On behalf of the families of Continental Flight 3407, we would like to express our deepest gratitude to all the agencies who have worked so hard and in such a professional way during our time of grief. The respect you have given to us, our families, and especially the respect and dignity you are giving to our loved ones who were aboard Continental Flight 3407 is valued and appreciated by all of us."
The National Transportation Safety Board hopes to have the downed plane removed from the site by Wednesday. But Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard said his deputies will continue to provide support to the Clarence Center neighborhood to help cope with the intensive scrutiny it is undergoing.
"No parking" signs, he said, may be posted to discourage outsiders from stopping, and residents have the option of posting "no trespassing" signs on their own property.
State police will continue to maintain high visibility in the neighborhood for the weeks and months to come, according to State Police Capt. Steven A. Nigrelli. "What we've been telling the local residents is that if they see anything out of the ordinary, such as trespassing, we want them to contact police," he said.
News Staff Reporter Patrick Lakamp contributed to this report.