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Fighting to make loss meaningful

Their red shirts are symbols of courage in the face of loss.

Their persistence is bravery born out of grief.

Their resolve is strength sustained by the memories of 50 people lost when a plane crashed on a cold February night.

But that does not make it any easier.

More than three years have passed since the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 into a home in Clarence Center. But with each new hearing, each subcommittee meeting, each court appearance comes a fresh wave of grief.

"Time does not heal all wounds," said Jennifer West, who lost her husband, Ernie, the father of her daughter and the love of her life. "It makes you able to function more, but the pain is still as strong as it was three years ago."

There has been progress. A new law is in place aimed at making flying safer. The legal process plods toward trial.

Yet the delays continue, both in the fight in Washington to ensure proper implementation of new training and fatigue rules for pilots, as well as in a federal courtroom in Buffalo, where families are pressing for Colgan Air and Continental Airlines to take responsibility.

With each step forward, there is new pushback.

In Washington, last month, the families heard what was expected. The airline industry is preparing its opposition to a Federal Aviation Administration rule requiring co-pilots to have 1,500 hours of training. It is one step in a long process to ensure that standards laid out in a 2010 flight safety law are followed.

This is the arduously long process of bringing change. Rules must be vetted. Legal rights must be upheld.

It is a fight that takes its toll on families who have already suffered so much. A lawyer told a federal judge last week that more than half of the claims filed by family members have been settled.

"We live with it every day," said West, who continues her legal action. "Just yesterday, my daughter was looking at a picture of my husband saying, 'I wish Daddy could come down from heaven.' "

West looks back three years and wonders how she summoned the courage to go on. Her husband, a deputy director at Northrop Grumman, was her "Superman" -- the man who shared her sense of humor, who took care of the cooking, who gardened after work.

He was the man who cared for her after she gave birth to their daughter, Summer, during the October storm, and who, when the baby was just 6 months old, started a weekly father-daughter tradition of Sunday breakfast at Perkins.

"Words cannot express how much I miss him, and that is what Colgan and Continental will never understand," West said in an email after we talked last week. "They robbed me of my soul mate, Summer of her daddy.

None of these families knew the turn their lives would take when they woke up Feb. 12, 2009. None could foresee the power they had to bring change as they banded together.

Their work means the loss of 50 people and an unborn child will help make others safer.

Their work helps ensure pilots and co-pilots on airlines large and small will have better rest and training.

Their work honors the lives of so many lost. But it will not diminish their heartache.