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Prayer service brings community together in grief

Some came to grieve together, to feel a part of a larger community.

Some came because they knew, directly or indirectly, one of the 50 victims.

Others came because they just didn't know where else to turn in their sadness.

Still others came to thank the emergency responders, as demonstrated by two spontaneous 30-second standing ovations for firefighters -- both from Buffalo and the volunteer companies -- other volunteers and those still manning the crash site of Flight 3407.

But the mourners -- almost 2,000 strong -- who attended Monday's interfaith community prayer service left Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church in Clarence with something else:

A large dose of hope.

Some of that hope came from a man who apparently had come to the podium straight from the crash site.

The Rev. Steve Biegner of Zion Lutheran Church in Clarence walked to the podium in blue jeans, bearing greetings from the Clarence Center war zone.

In the death and destruction, Biegner found hope -- in the crew of firefighters who had run past him late Thursday night, in the volunteer firefighter with the broken hand who jumped into the fray and in the volunteers who have been on the scene since 10:30 p.m. Thursday.

"In the midst of this tragedy, I saw hope," he told the crowd. "Friends, this day has hope."

Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein of Temple Sinai in Amherst put it another way:

"God's light can shine through the wreckage," he told the crowd. "God's light will shine through the wreckage."

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo found another reason to hope:

"Dear friends, today we weep. The families weep. But there also is a future eternity with God."

The mourners' thoughts stayed with the 50 lives lost in an instant late Thursday night.

A simple glass vase, half-filled with water and sitting on a table with a white tablecloth, became the symbol of that loss.

Emergency responders and members of the Clarence High School Chorus walked silently up to the table. Each placed a white rose in the vase -- one for each of the 50 lives lost.

Arianna Opper, 17, a Clarence High School senior, placed the last rose in the vase.

She said she thought not only about the pregnant woman who died in the wreckage -- and her unborn child -- but also of all 50 victims.

"I was thinking about the last person who perished, about their last breath," she said.

Linda Davey and her daughter Melinda, a sophomore at Clarence High School, embraced throughout most of the service and wiped tears from their eyes as they remembered Ellyce Kausner and Douglas C. Wielinski, victims they knew.

The service was helpful as a way "to grieve, to get it out, to connect with one another," Linda Davey said.

County Executive Chris Collins, who organized Monday's prayer service, explained that it was not a memorial service.

"This should allow closure, to allow people to go on," he explained. "This is a community prayer service, not a memorial service. That might be stepping outside our bounds."

The Rev. Karl Eastlack, pastor of Eastern Hills Wesleyan, set the tone for the hourlong service in his opening remarks.

"We are all one community," he said. "We gather today because Western New York has entered a season of grieving."

People gave a variety of reasons for attending the service.

Mia Kuebler of Clarence, who taught one of victim Darren Tolsma's children, said, "Like many other people, I just felt I wanted to connect and pray."

Mourners didn't need to know anyone on the plane to feel affected by the loss.

"We feel like someone on that plane was a family member of ours," said Charlotte White, of Buffalo, there to support the True Bethel Baptist Church Chorus.

Her friend, Jennifer Woodard, added, "I didn't know anyone on the plane personally, but I'm hurting like everyone else."

Tom and Judy Brummer, of Cheektowaga, came to the service to find personal solace and convey their sympathies.

"I can't block it out of my mind," said Tom Brummer, a retired Buffalo firefighter. "It's difficult even to sleep. We want to show the families of the victims that there are people who care."

Feelings of both intense gratitude and profound grief brought Mark and JoAnne Forbach to the church.

JoAnne Forbach's brother and his family lived next to the crash site but were not home at the time. The couple, however, knew several victims.

"It's a very close-knit community," she said. "We feel the pain."

Michelle Billittier and Tina Mederski, both of Cheektowaga, had placed flowers at a Clarence church over the weekend to honor the victims before attending Monday's service.

"I couldn't imagine what those families are going through," Billittier said.

Rocked by the magnitude of the tragedy, Lockport residents Barbara Turner and Karen Mattucci arrived at the church an hour early in search of comfort.

"I've been following all this, and I just felt like I should be here," Turner said.

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