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Plane crash tore apart family on ground Typical weeknight at home instantly turned into tragedy

It had been a typical weeknight for the Wielinskis.

Karen Wielinski, 57, was watching TV in the living room of the family's modest house on Long Street in Clarence Center.

Daughter Jill, 22, was also watching a TV show, in an upstairs bedroom.

Doug Wielinski, 61, was elsewhere in the house. What he was doing, in those final moments, no one knows, nor will ever know.

In an instant, without warning, the Wielinskis' normal life shattered.

First there was the loud noise of a plane overhead; then a tremendous crash.

The next thing Karen knew, she recalls, the house was "on top" of her.

She knew she needed to find her daughter. She tried to think clearly and to stay calm. But there were dense smoke and flames all around -- and she began to panic.

At that moment, Karen saw "a hole with light." She crawled toward it, wondering what was happening to her husband and daughter.

Far away in the chaos, Jill had also seen a small glimmer of light. She crawled toward it. Mother and daughter spotted each other in the smoke and fire, and "Karen grabbed Jill's arm and wouldn't let her go," said a family friend, Susan Muchow, who related Karen's story to The Buffalo News on behalf of the grieving woman, who did not feel she had the strength to do it herself.

"They managed to escape. They were outside, and that's when Karen screamed, 'Help my daughter!' " Muchow said.

It was 10:20 last Thursday night -- a moment forever engraved on the hearts of the Wielinskis, and in the memories of Western New Yorkers.

Karen and Jill Wielinski had escaped the impossible: the thundering force of a Continental Connection plane, Flight 3407, that had come crashing out of a dark night sky and onto the roof of their house in the quiet suburb of Clarence.

The two women escaped with minor injuries. Doug Wielinski died in the disaster.

To observers, the Wielinski family's story seems shocking, almost unbelievable.

Karen Wielinski shares that reaction. But she also has a different view of it.

She believes the family's experience is a testament to the enduring power of love -- the love that bound them together, and the love she and Doug shared.

She believes that the light she and Jill followed to safety was Doug's spirit -- his love, guiding her through the flames and rubble.

"That was Doug's love for her," said another close friend of the family, "leading her out. We believe that."

>A joyful family

Love had led the way for Doug and Karen Wielinski before.

Karen Schoenwetter had grown up in the city, attending St. Mary of Sorrows School, then Bishop McMahon High School, where she graduated in the Class of 1969.

Doug Wielinski was a Western New York native, too, who earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University at Buffalo in 1969 and went on to get his master's degree in chemistry at Niagara University.

Doug served in the Army during the Vietnam War. He was shipped overseas to Vietnam on his birthday, July 13, in the summer after his college graduation.

After his discharge, the couple met at a baseball game where Doug was playing with a Buffalo team. One of Karen's cousins had told her there were two cute guys on the team.

She showed up, took one look, and declared, "I want the one with the mustache." That was Doug.

They were married on May 19, 1979. Four children were born: all girls, which Karen delighted in. The couple loved their family and being together, friends recalled.

The Wielinskis moved to Ohio while their children were younger and lived for a time in Miami Township in Clermont County. They sent their kids to a local Catholic school and were popular in the community, reported WCPO-TV in Cincinnati.

"A wonderful family. They were great parishioners. Very involved," a parish official at St. Columba in Miami told the Cincinnati station. "They were very excited to move back to New York to be with their family."

Eight years ago, the family moved back to the Buffalo area. Karen took a job in the Clarence Central Schools office, where she is a secretary. Doug worked as a marketing manager for Luvata in Buffalo, formerly known as Outokumpu American Brass.

In 2003, they bought the house at 6038 Long St. -- hoping to see it filled with happy family memories, parties, Doug's collections and the laughter of grandchildren.

"Karen and Doug were an extraordinary couple," said a friend of the family, who asked not to be named in order to keep attention on the Wielinskis. "They were very much in love with each other. Their life focused around each other, and their children."

Two of their daughters still lived at home: Jill and Kimberly. Jessica lives in the Town of Monroe; Lori, in Cincinnati.

The family was busily planning the weddings of two daughters when the crash came.

>The couple's interests

Each of the Wielinskis was known in the community for special interests.

Karen Wielinski is a member of the Clarence Women's Club and the group's past president.

She helped run card parties that served as fundraisers for the club, for its scholarship program, which sees that six seniors at Clarence High School receive $500 scholarships to college, recalled an associate from the club, Sylvia Hair.

"She was full of fun," Hair said. "Really full of fun, and really very dedicated. She would help out anywhere -- in the kitchen, selling tickets, getting the gifts together, whatever needed to be done. Just to make things run smoothly."

And Doug was known for his love of history and historical memorabilia. He was passionate about collecting sports items and artifacts relating to Buffalo's history.

At Antique World in Clarence, Doug was a familiar face on Sunday at 6 a.m. -- his favorite time for browsing the tables and booths of mementos.

"Every Sunday morning, rain or shine, snow or sleet, he was like the mailman," said John Stall, who has sold antiques in Clarence since 1970. "He would be there at 6 a.m., right when we'd open. He'd look for his sports memorabilia. He loved the Yankees, the old Bisons, the Bills. He collected Sabres, too. You couldn't have met a better person than Doug. He was a real gentleman. If he couldn't make it the following Sunday, he'd tell us: 'I'm not going to be here next Sunday.'"

Doug had a generous heart, people who knew him said.

Around the holidays, he would slip into the hands of friends a little present -- maybe a $5 gift card for Tim Hortons.

Doug Wielinski will be remembered in a memorial service at 10 a.m. Saturday in Clarence Middle School on Greiner Road.

His widow, Karen, who has been staying out of sight with her family, plans to attend.

The Wielinski family toured the site of their former home Wednesday, escorted by police.

State Police Capt. Steven A. Nigrelli said Karen Wielinski was composed during her 20-minute visit to the plot of land that had once been her home.

In the meantime, Karen's friends have joined forces to get their friend -- who has been left with nothing -- some basic possessions to get her and Jill through these difficult days. Clothing, purses, some groceries -- even a pair of earrings, just so that mother and daughter have a few personal items for themselves.

"Karen wants Doug to be remembered," said Muchow, the close friend. "Karen and Doug were more than husband and wife. They were best friends."

News Staff Reporter Lou Michel contributed to this report.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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