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In Clarence, a symbol of love; Dedication of Flight 3407 memorial brings together victims' families at crash site where tragedy and death 'has been transformed into one celebrating life'

Three years, three months and three weeks after a plane tumbled from the sky and into Karen Wielinski's home, she stood Saturday on the site where her husband and dozens of others died and proclaimed good news.

"The site that was the location of their death has been transformed into one celebrating life," she said, fighting off tears.

Virtually every speaker also fought tears at the dedication ceremony for the memorial in honor of those lost in the Feb. 12, 2009, crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407.

Wielinski said the memorial on the site of her old home in Clarence is, above all, a quiet, park-like setting where those who lost loved ones can come to reflect and remember.

"It is also a symbol of love that enables us to keep their spirits alive and let even those who never met them know them through our words and actions," Wielinski said.

That love pervaded Saturday's ceremony, as about 200 people joined the families of Flight 3407 and local leaders to honor the lost -- and to ponder what they've gained in their wake.

The stormy skies parted and sunlight bathed the memorial just as the ceremony was starting, and it seemed a symbol of so much that was to follow.

"The Scriptures tell us that after darkness, there comes light," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. "And that's just what's happened here."

The completion of the memorial comes nearly two years after the Families of Continental Flight 3407, with Schumer's help, pushed to pass the most important aviation safety legislation in decades.

While a core group of family members traveled to Washington dozens of times to turn that bill into law, Wielinski worked quietly to turn what once was her home into a special place to honor her husband and the others who died that night.

"I think right from the get-go, I knew I would never rebuild the house here and I wouldn't want another house built here," Wielinski said during a walk around the memorial a day before the dedication. "I think my girls felt the same way, and I think the families would have felt the same way, too."

Meanwhile, local attorney Michael B. Powers -- who lives nearby and who, on Feb. 12, 2009, thought the plane was going to hit his home -- was thinking just what Wielinski was thinking: that a memorial must be built on the crash site.

Together they teamed with other Flight 3407 families to form Remember Flight 3407 Inc., the nonprofit that raised nearly $250,000 to help the families and fund the $75,000 memorial.

Powers' law firm, Phillips Lytle, donated the legal work needed to get things going, and Karen Wielinski's brother-in-law, Bill Wielinski, reached out to the University at Buffalo School of Architecture to find a designer.

Joseph D'Angelo, then a University at Buffalo graduate student, volunteered to design the memorial as a school project, and the result is a neatly landscaped pocket park on residential Long Street in Clarence Center.

"I couldn't be happier with it," Wielinski said.

"It's just a place to pray and think and remember," Powers added. "It is understated but quite heavy with symbolism."

The symbolism starts with a walkway, which is the length of the plane that crashed and shaped like an airplane wing. On the wing's underside, there are indentations -- marking the outline of the Wielinski home.

"Before I would come and try and think: where was the garage? Where was the house. I was getting to the point where I couldn't remember any more," Wielinski said.

"Now, it's like: we've got the porch, the living room, the dining room, the den. They must have looked at the blueprint of the house."

Fifty-one steppingstones are interspersed along the gravel walkway -- one for each of the victims of the crash, including an unborn baby.

The steppingstones are spaced far apart at the beginning and end of the walkway, but crowded together near the location of the Wielinskis' home. That means the footsteps of anyone walking down the pathway will go silent as they pass the home site.

There they will see a red maple tree and a stone carved with the image of the Wielinskis' home.

"We'll call it Doug's tree," Wielinski said.

And after visitors proceed down the walkway -- lined with 12 pear trees to commemorate the Feb. 12 date of the crash -- they will arrive at a memorial stone bearing the names of the victims.

Next to the memorial stone is a bench attached to a stone wall, much like those built by the pioneers who settled Clarence, many of which still remain on local farms.

"I think some of the neighborhood were afraid we were going to build a big monument or something here," Wielinski said. "But I never wanted to do that."

Instead, the neighborhood is now home to a memorial that's purposefully understated -- and the Flight 3407 families like it that way.

"I really do like it," said Justine Krasuski of Cheektowaga, who lost her husband, Jerome, in the crash. "It's just a nice, peaceful place. It's a comfort."

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

"It's so sensitive," he said. "It's reflective of so many of our thoughts and our love."

So was the dedication ceremony. A local singer, Sara Delling, performed songs that seemed made for the moment, like Lady Antebellum's "Never Alone."

Schumer, Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, spoke in heartfelt tones.

"You turned your sorrow into purpose," Higgins said to the families gathered around the memorial.

Schumer once again said the Flight 3407 families were "saintlike," which prompted John Kausner, who served on the memorial committee along with Wielinski and Krasuski, to offer an explanation.

"The Scriptures also said the apostles were ordinary people," said Kausner, who lost his daughter, Ellyce, in the crash. "And if we're anything, we're a reflection of those people we lost that night."

Kausner said that the crash left him not only with an unending loss, but also hope -- hope that stems from a community that banded together and a group of federal lawmakers who responded when the families needed help.

And just before the crowd released dozens of red and white balloons toward the heavens to end the dedication, Kausner said he'd leave the ceremony with one last, greatest hope.

"I hope that we'll see our loved ones again," he said.