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Last pieces of plane gone, but scar remains

You wouldn't know there had been a plane crash.

A terrible house fire, yes, from the pungent odor of burned building material and the sight of heavy equipment doing cleanup Thursday afternoon.

But to think 50 people perished there in a blazing inferno a week ago seemed unfathomable.

By Sunday, when residents are expected to reclaim their homes on Clarence Center's Long Street, there will be a carpet of gray, crushed stone, where the Wielinski family house had stood before Flight 3407 crashed into it last Thursday.

By spring, the stone will be shoveled up and replaced with fresh topsoil.

"In the better weather, we'll do the final grade and seed it," said David Metzger, Clarence's code enforcement officer, who stood attentively watching as some two dozen construction workers removed debris and what was once the concrete basement walls of the Wielinski home.

The workers labored beneath a biting, wind-whipped snow. The end result will be an empty lot, which is what Karen Wielinski wants for now.

"She's told me they do not want a house built on that site," said Clarence Town Supervisor Scott Bylewski, who added that he cannot reveal more about her plans for the site. "It was a private conversation with her."

Wielinski and her daughter Jill managed to escape after the commuter plane crashed on top of their house at 6038 Long St. Doug Wielinski, Karen's husband, died.

And as the remediation work progressed, with an oversized backhoe filling dump trucks with concrete chunks and other debris, several other workers dressed in white and yellow jumpsuits filed in and out of the Wielinskis' scorched garage.

They carefully carried cardboard boxes containing what was believed to be part of Doug Wielinski's cherished sports memorabilia collection.

His widow has told friends she wants all of his collection, even if it is damaged, because it is all she has left of him.

The garage and a one-story, beige-brick house next door at 6032 Long St., which also received structural damage, will soon be razed -- further altering this cozy neighborhood, where in the last several days 1,185 emergency responders toiled at different times.

By mid-afternoon Thursday, the final pieces of aircraft, hidden beneath blue and white tarpaulins, were hauled away on four trailers.

The parts included the dismantled tail of the commuter plane, destroyed landing gear, charred and shredded fuselage -- all bound for "an undisclosed, secure location," according to David Bissonette, the town's emergency services coordinator.

The removal marked a minor event in a week that has been packed with more than enough tragedy to last this hamlet a lifetime.

Conceding that it will take time before Long Street reclaims its residential character, Bissonette said the recovery will happen in stages -- with an emphasis on keeping "gawkers" at bay.

Sunday, it is expected the dozen evacuated families will return, along with others who voluntarily left the neighborhood. For 48 hours, the street will remain cordoned off to give residents time to adjust.

"Clearly our objective is to get the physical site back in order," Bissonette said. "Emotionally it will take many weeks and months to accomplish the same."

After the 48 hours, he said, the street will be open to public access, with a police presence involving state troopers and Erie County sheriff's deputies.

"There will be a patrol car working that specific block for the foreseeable future," Bissonette said.

Eventually the dedicated police patrols will end, and at that point, it is hoped, "the neighborhood will be returned to something of a normal lifestyle," Bissonette said.

"This weekend will probably be the toughest as families return and resume their lives on Long Street," Bylewski said. "We are all grieving and trying to help each other heal, and we will move forward while remembering what has happened as a community."

But for those who lost loved ones on the flight, the grief remained clear throughout Thursday as they paid visits to the Long Street site, some accompanied by police escorts, others on their own.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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