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Tragedy's timeless echo; Flight 3407 widow's book tells of persevering after heartbreak

Darren Tolsma's life ended more than three years ago, but his spirit was much in evidence at a book-centered gathering held in a Lancaster hotel Monday afternoon.

Tolsma, one of 50 people killed in the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, was there in the thin gold wedding band that his widow, Robin, wore on the third finger of her left hand, underneath her own wedding band.

He was there in the memories of family members and friends of the Tolsma family.

But most of all, Darren Tolsma was there in the pages of a new book that his wife has just released, to tell the story of the Tolsma family's devastating loss on that wintry night.

The volume, titled "Everything Changed," is the story of the crash of Flight 3407 in Clarence Center in February 2009 and the days and weeks -- and years -- afterward, told through the eyes of one victim's family.

Darren Tolsma, an employee of Northrop Grumman, was traveling on business when he died in the Feb. 12, 2009, crash. He was 45.

Robin Tolsma held the book-release kickoff and signing event from 3 to 8 p.m. in a meeting room in Russell's Grand Hotel on Transit Road for a group of invited guests, including many former co-workers of the couple and family friends, as well as friends of the Tolsma children, Darren and Nicole.

She said that her 100-page memoir is a testament to the husband she lost and her own strength in overcoming the devastation of the plane crash, which killed everyone on board the Colgan Air plane and a man on the ground.

"I would hope people would think, 'If she can get through that, I can get through anything,' " said Robin Tolsma, her gold wedding jewelry -- and Darren's -- sparkling on her hand, and around her neck a pendant containing some of Darren's remains.

"There is a light at the end," she said.

Also at the event, Russell Salvatore provided an update on the status of a Flight 3407 memorial that is being constructed on the grounds of the hotel, in a park area. The memorial is due to be completed by May, Salvatore said.

Tolsma's book, which is self-published, includes family photos, among them the last family photograph the Tolsmas took together, at Christmas in 2008.

Tolsma said her book offers a frank look at what the aftermath of such tragedy can be, for surviving family members. In the book, she writes with blunt honesty about her difficulties dealing with Darren's loss, and the trauma the family went through each of the three times they received a call from authorities telling them that another small part of Darren's remains had been found.

"People have questions," said Tolsma, a former seventh-grade English teacher. "People say, 'Oh, she's so strong.' But it's not just a crash and a burial, and that's it. It's lasted years."

Tolsma was joined at the event by her parents and her brother, Ron Kazmierczak of Wichita Falls, Texas, who praised his sister's stamina and grace in producing a story for the world to read.

"It was hard [for her]; I could tell she was in so much pain," said Kazmierczak, who read drafts of his sister's memoir as she wrote it. "My sister is so strong. She became my hero. She has become a light, not just to our family, but to others. It truly takes a special person to rise above that."

Jeff Porcelli, a former colleague of Darren Tolsma's at Northrop Grumman, said that he came to the signing to show support for Robin Tolsma's continuing process of healing. "I miss him," Porcelli said of Darren Tolsma. "It's just sadness."

Carol Sporysz, a former colleague of Robin Tolsma's in the Lancaster schools, said she also came to the signing event to show support for a woman she admires.

"I give Robin so much credit," said Sporysz, who first husband died at a young age. "I love her. I feel her pain -- and I want to read her book. I just love her."

"Everything Changed" costs $13 and is available locally at Wegmans stores, the Made in America store in Elma, Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo, the Book Worm in East Aurora, Dash's market in Clarence and the Tops store on Broadway in Lancaster.

Tolsma will hold a second book-signing event -- this one open to the public -- from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 28 in the Made in America store, 900 Maple Road, Elma.

Monday's event reminded Porcelli of a comment Darren Tolsma often made.

"He would always say, 'Do the right thing, even if no one is looking,' " Porcelli said. "I use that line now all the time."