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When eyes close, images again aflame

When Jody Clarke Hand closes her eyes, it is 32 years ago and she is back in the living room of the family home in suburban Washington, D.C. She and her siblings and her parents are watching the television show "What's Happening?"

Then, in a flash, the house is gone in a ball of fire. She is at the base of her driveway, and the whole family is thinking the same thing: "What happened?"

People can imagine what it feels like to be Karen and Jill Wielinski today, to have been in their home in Clarence when Flight 3407 crashed into it and to have somehow survived. Jody Clarke Hand doesn't have to imagine it; when she closes her eyes, she can almost feel it.

On the night of April 28, 1977, Dennis and Shirley Clarke were in the living room of their home at 1171 Old Stable Road in McLean, Va., with their four children, ages 7 to 15. The kids should have been in their rooms upstairs; none of them had made their beds that morning, and they were to have been sent to bed early as a punishment. At the last minute, their father said they could watch "What's Happening?" which came on at 8:30.

At 8:38 p.m., an eight-passenger plane headed from nearby National Airport to Birmingham, Ala., with four people onboard exploded in the sky over McLean. A wing of the airplane crashed through the upstairs bathroom of the Clarkes' house, feet from where the children should have been in bed, and exploded. The force of the blast seemed to suck the air out of the house like a vacuum, and within seconds, fire engulfed everything.

Jody's older brother, Michael, headed for the door to the garage, and his family followed. In an e-mail, he said the garage door had been knocked off its tracks, so he pulled as hard as he could to create an opening and crawled through. His sisters and parents followed and escaped to safety. Amazingly, none of them had to be hospitalized.

Their house was the only one destroyed in the incident. Jody spent the night in the home of a neighbor directly across the street. To this day, she wishes she hadn't.

"Those images are literally stuck in my head," she said. "I can smell it right now if I close my eyes, and it's terrifying."

The Clarkes decided almost immediately that they would rebuild their home on the exact spot, but Jody said they designed it to be the opposite of the house that had been destroyed.

"We wanted to grow new memories," she said. "And we made it all brick."

On April 28, 1978, a year to the day after an event that was both catastrophic and miraculous, the Clarkes moved back into a home at 1171 Old Stable Road. For years afterward, they held a party on that date. Jody said she calls her siblings and her parents every year on April 28 to say, "Happy Anniversary. You're alive."

The miracle of the Wielinskis' survival is tempered by the tragic fact that Doug Wielinski, their husband and father, did not make it. Any joy they may one day feel will always be outweighed by the grief of their loss.

But Jody Clarke Hand wants them to know that they can make it. Her advice is to say yes to everyone who wants to help -- to accept all the words and deeds that will be flowing from the community for a long time.

"Just know that eventually you'll get past it," she said. "You'll never forget it, it will always be with you, but you will get past it."

e-mail: bandriatch@buffnews.com

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