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Coming together amid tragedy Residents attend services and offer help as spirit of fellowship abounds

The Buffalo area's collective heart is broken, and people are looking for ways -- large and small -- to pick up the pieces.

Pain surrounds us and cuts deep.

At least 35 of the 50 people killed in the crash of Flight 3407 lived in the Buffalo area or had strong ties here. Their relatives, friends and co-workers are countless.

As of Tuesday, 10 memorial Masses for crash victims had either taken place or were scheduled at local Catholic churches. Many other services were planned at other houses of worship.

"I think it's numbing," said Kevin A. Keenan, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo. "There's a deep sense of sadness, reaching out to the families and praying for the victims."

More than 100 people volunteered to help with an interfaith prayer service earlier this week in a Clarence church.

They set up chairs, made coffee, passed out service leaflets and helped with voice and sound equipment. But as much as anything, they -- like so many others throughout the region -- were trying to keep busy, focused and helpful at a time of immense communitywide suffering.

"We were inundated with people saying: 'How can I help? What can I do?' " said Mark Nigro, executive pastor at Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church.

And the calls continued even after Monday's prayer session. People are volunteering at churches and community centers, contributing to funds for the families of those killed on Flight 3407 and baking cookies for investigators at the crash scene.

A committee is even forming to urge that the television show "Extreme Makeover" build a home for the Wielinski family, whose Clarence Center house was destroyed when the plane crashed into it Thursday night.

"I think it's stunning, numbing," said Monsignor J. Patrick Keleher, director of the Newman Center at the University at Buffalo. "Everybody knows [a victim] closely."

Nearly 2,000 people attended the interfaith service in Clarence, with some arriving more than an hour early to pray.

"It helps for people to come together when they don't know what to do for other families," said Tina Mederski of Cheektowaga.

That same spirit is evident at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Clarence, where memorial Masses are planned for three victims of the crash.

"I've had many, many calls from people saying: 'What can we do?' " said Monsignor Frederick D. Leising, the pastor. "We're getting calls even from people who were complete strangers to the victims."

Buffalo is living up to its reputation as both the City of Good Neighbors and the world's biggest small town.

On just two days' notice, Buffalo's True Bethel Baptist Church put together a choir of nearly 100 congregants to sing at the service in Clarence. As many as 20 of the participants were not members of the regular choir but wanted to help out and be part of the healing process, said the Rev. Darius G. Pridgen, True Bethel's pastor.

When emergency vehicles recently approached on traffic-clogged Maple Road in Amherst, motorists pulled over to clear the center lanes without the slightest hesitation, Keleher said.

University at Buffalo President John B. Simpson said Tuesday that spirit has prevailed since the first emergency crews responded to the crash.

"I understand now that one of the things that distinguishes our community here in Western New York is the proximity of people to one another -- the seemingly small number of degrees of separation between neighborhoods, families and friends," he told about 150 people at a remembrance ceremony on UB's North Campus in Amherst.

"And so this is who we are today: neighborhoods, families, friends and colleagues, sitting together to remember and reflect for a while."

Much of that reflection centers around the fragility of life. Jolted by that realization, many people are making sure to give family members kisses and hugs and to voice their affection, several religious leaders said.

People are also searching for meaning, and Leising will try to offer some direction at the three memorial Masses he will celebrate for crash victims.

"The larger question that people have is: Why is life like this?" he said. "People look for a framework for trying to understand what's going on. In Christianity, we know dying doesn't mean we cease to be. We don't exhaust life here."

email: psimon@buffnews.com

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