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Going home debatable for crash evacuees Return expected to take days

Dale Honsberger moved to his white wood-frame home on Long Street in 1956, back when Clarence still was mostly farms and pasture. As a volunteer firefighter, he battled barn blazes and saw "lots of tragic things."

But nothing prepared him for the night of Feb. 12, when Continental Connection Flight 3407 plunged into the house across the street from his Clarence Center home, killing 50 in a hellish fireball.

A member of one of 12 evacuated families, Honsberger went back home briefly Tuesday -- the first day officials would allow evacuees to return permanently. He tried to take stock of his neighborhood, forever changed, and to understand his own feelings.

"Thankful to be alive," he said Tuesday, standing outside Clarence Center Fire Hall, where he is still a volunteer.

But he also was overwhelmed, juggling to reconcile the "horrific" events that night and the "amazing" outpouring from community groups and neighbors who quickly donated food and other necessities. The assistance, he said, was deeply appreciated as he and his wife set up temporary camp with one of his grown children, who lives on a different section of Long Street.

"I don't know what to say," he said. "Sometimes it's hard to explain feelings."

Evacuees were expected to return to Long Street over the next few days, said David Bissonette, the town's emergency services coordinator. Some still are reluctant; others want to try to get on with their lives, coping as best they can for now.

Mary Ann Mulaniff felt for them. She was not evacuated even though her home at Clarence Center Road and Long Street was just a few houses from the crash.

While her evacuated neighbors stayed elsewhere, she witnessed the frenzied work at the site, seeing it transformed from a nightmare to an empty lot of crushed stone.

"It's not going to take me as long to recover as it will the people who left," Mulaniff said. "They'll come back and see nothing there. I'm already [coping] much better."

Tuesday afternoon, the cleanup continued at ground zero -- 6038 Long St., where the plane struck, killing Douglas C. Wielinski. Wielinski's wife, Karen, and daughter Jill managed to flee to safety. Karen Wielinski has said she does not want a home built at the site.

What the family who lived next door, whose house was damaged beyond repair, will do with that property remains unknown, Clarence Supervisor Scott A. Bylewski said Tuesday at a news conference at the crash site. That property also will be cleared and filled in with gravel, at least temporarily.

Bissonette and Bylewski also announced work in the area was expected to be completed by the end of the day, including a couple more cleanings of the street itself.

Town and other officials will escort each returning family and conduct "walk-through" tours to answer questions and ensure that no problems remain, Bylewski said.

"We want to make sure we do right by them," he said.

A stepped-up law enforcement presence will continue as well, to discourage trespassing by curiosity seekers.

As part of the cleanup, the site was tested and cleared of any hazardous materials. Topsoil was removed and replaced. Grass will be planted in the spring, once the ground has thawed. The last pieces of the aircraft were hauled away on four trailers Thursday.

Bissonette said all "due diligence" had been done to make sure the site is clean and that nothing remains of the crash.

"It's highly unlikely for something to surface later," he said.

Honsberger said he is unsure of how long it will take for him and his wife to recover from Feb. 12. They raised four children in their Long Street home, a mostly quiet place.

Mulaniff seemed more confident, though, of the future.

"I've lived here 40 years, and nothing like this ever happened," she said, "and this town is 200 years old.

e-mail: ncervantes@buffnews.com

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