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Flight 3407 families offer example in D.C. of how to cope with tragedy

Key members of the Families of Continental Flight 3407 returned to the nation's capital Tuesday to serve as an example of how survivors of tragedy can cope with their loss.

Speaking at a National Transportation Safety Board conference on family assistance in the wake of a transportation disaster, the members of the families group said that others will someday be in their shoes -- and will feel better if they can make something positive out of their experience.

The survivors of tragedy should look to other family groups for advice, support each other through tough times and set a goal that amounts to change for the better, said Kevin Kuwik, who led the families' successful effort to persuade Congress to pass key aviation safety legislation last year.

By trying to improve transportation safety, "you can look back and say your loved ones didn't die in vain," said Kuwik, who lost his girlfriend, Lorin Maurer, in the plane crash that claimed 50 lives in Clarence Center in February 2009.

Kenneth Mellett, who lost his son, Coleman, in the crash, agreed.

Noting that the legislation passed by Congress tightened the standards for pilot hiring and addressed a host of other issues that played a role in the Clarence accident, Mellett said the new law "is really the only positive outcome of the crash."

Then, however, he hastened to add another positive: getting to know Kuwik and the other members of the families group.

The families formed a great emotional bond in the 18 months between the crash and the bill's enactment into law, and it was on display again Tuesday, as Kuwik and Mellett fought back tears when they recounted the group's story.

Mellett walked the audience through the whole ordeal.

First and worst of all, Mellett said, was the lack of clear information shortly after the accident. The next day, a Continental official could not positively say that Coleman Mellett was on Flight 3407, even though they confirmed that he had bought a ticket.

Mellett, then, had a natural reaction: "I kept thinking: 'This is not the case. This cannot be happening to us.' "

But it was, and after the Melletts traveled to Buffalo on the day after the crash, they found much more help -- from a Continental representative, and especially from NTSB officials who traveled to Buffalo to deal with the crash. "Most importantly, they gave us information," said Mary Ellen Mellett, Coleman's mother and Kenneth Mellett's wife. "That is what we wanted and needed."

The federal officials also gave the families comfort, forming a deep bond that continues to this day. When the NTSB officials left Buffalo, they left not with handshakes, but with hugs, Kenneth Mellett noted.

NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman agreed, noting that a recent agency event attended by 3407 family members felt "like a family reunion."

She praised the families group for pushing aviation safety measures into law, and at the end of the presentation, the audience -- composed of government safety officials, industry officials and members of families groups from previous tragedies around the world -- gave the Melletts and Kuwik a standing ovation.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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