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Day 2: After Flight 3407 crash, a life forever changed

Karen and Doug Wielinski and their daughter Jill were in different parts of their house on Long Street in Clarence Center on the night of Feb. 12, 2009, when a plane fell from the sky, killing Doug Wielinski, destroying their home and shattering the lives of the couple and their four daughters. This is Karen Wielinski's story of what she remembers of the day after the crash, night, culled from her new book "One on the Ground."

Read Day One of Karen's story here:

'That is our house!': Widow recalls 3407 crash

Toward dawn I decided to take a shower. As I let the pulsating water hit my body, I thought of a movie, Best Friends, that had been shot in Buffalo. Goldie Hawn and Burt Reynolds were in it. In one scene, Goldie tried to drown her sorrows in a shower. Strange that I would think of it then, but that was what I wanted to do. Wash away all the pain – mental and physical.

I felt sequestered. What was happening? I turned the television on. A crawl under pictures of the blazing scene said that 49 people on the plane and one person on the ground were killed. There was no mention of Jill, Kim, or me.

Family, friends, and co-workers would be concerned and wonder what happened to us. The best way to update them would probably be through the media. Maureen’s sister, Barbara Burns, was a reporter for WBEN radio. I could ask Maureen for her number. I knew Barbara so talking to her would be easier than with another reporter.

Jill asked me to turn the television off.

I went to the phone and called work – crazy. I felt I had to let my boss know I would not be coming in, but no one answered. The school had closed because of the crash. I found my boss’ home number, and reached his son.

“My mom and dad are out looking for you,” he said.

“We’re at the Residence Suites,” I told him.

Eddie and Maureen returned to get a list of what we needed. We gave them sizes for tops, jeans, shoes, and underwear – basics to tide us over until we could shop for replacements.

We needed money. Sometime during the morning I called HSBC bank to see what was needed to obtain a new debit card. The young man I reached – in India, I believe – was very helpful and shocked to learn of the crash.

“I will have to look that up on the internet,” he said.

We were told there was food, coffee, and tea in the lobby. I had no appetite.

The hospital called. An apologetic doctor told me that my X-rays had been reviewed, and I did have a broken collar bone. At least that explained the shoulder pain. “Keep your arm in the sling,” the doctor said.

Kim's Flight 3407 story: 'I had never felt such gripping fear'

There was a tearful reunion as Kim and Jeff arrived. Kim shared her emotional journey, telling how she had met roadblocks on the way home and was diverted to a development north of Long Street. From there she saw a huge plume of smoke.

We had all experienced a night of terror, but how difficult it must have been for Kim to handle all that uncertainty.

Daughter's story of 3407 crash: 'I knew I had to get out'

I did reach Barbara Burns, who asked if she could record our conversation. I agreed. Our call was brief. I quickly told her about how Jill and I had somehow escaped. Later attorneys would instruct me not to discuss those details because of the lawsuits that would be filed. I am glad that I talked to Barbara before that restriction became a part of my life. Lawsuits take years. I am sure I might be asked someday, “How can you remember your feelings at that time?” What I say today is exactly what I told Barbara the day after the crash; my original reaction is on the record.

Eddie and Maureen returned from the mission to Target. The Red Cross vouchers, they had discovered, had to be used completely during one visit. What a task it must have been for them to determine all those little day-to-day items we use—things we take for granted that are somehow always at our fingertips. We now had a variety of clothes, shoes, boots, hygiene supplies, towels, cleaning supplies, and other everyday things.

My boss, John Ptak, and his wife, Ann, arrived. Their faces could not mask their shock. More hugs, tears, and the retelling of the horror of the night before. My relationship with Dr. Ptak had always been businesslike. After the crash he went out of his way to help me and the girls. He became a friend in the process.

Doug’s other brother, Billy, was in Florida. He thought it would be dangerous for Lori and Jess to drive to Buffalo in such an obviously emotional state. He called Continental Airlines to see if they could provide air transportation. Because Doug’s name was not on the 3407 flight manifest, however, they told Billy that free air fare was not available. This did not sit well with him. When he went to the airport for his own flight back to Buffalo, he confronted Continental representatives and voiced his displeasure. They gave Billy transportation without charge.

Lori, Jess, and their boyfriends drove all night.

Lori's Flight 3407 story: 'My mind could not comprehend the reality'

Lori and Chris arrived first.

As I hugged Lori, she told me that she and Chris were ready to postpone their upcoming wedding planned for August 1. But I was adamant that their wedding would still take place as planned. Doug would want it that way. We needed some joy among all the sadness we faced.

Jess arrived later in the morning. Jess hugged me tight. “It feels so strange to see you without Dad,” she said. “You two were always together.”

Later, she shared her agonizing story with me.

Jess' Flight 3407 story: 'Everything seemed so surreal'

The rest of that day was a blur.

The hotel staff moved us to a larger suite. This one included a loft area with a bed, two couches that opened up into beds, two bathrooms, and a kitchen area.

My friend Sue Muchow brought cell phones donated by AT&T. She became our courier and picked up prescriptions, got contact lenses, and brought food and a box full of office supplies. We made phone calls to my sister, cousins, and out-of-town friends, always accompanied by tears.

Every possible media source seemed to know where we were. The majority of calls came to Jess or her boyfriend’s cell phones, perhaps because of their proximity to New York City. Calls coming to the hotel’s office were carefully screened, and no one was given direct access to us. Even Governor Patterson’s office called with condolences.

“The Governor would like to personally meet you,” we were told, but I knew if he came so would a contingent of the media. I was not ready for that.

Flowers arrived from a CBS Producer of The Early Show.

“Anything we can help you with at any time! I am soooo sorry for your loss.”

Scott Levin, from local television station WGRZ called several times. He had been a neighbor of ours in East Amherst. He was on vacation in Florida, and once while talking with him I could hear Disney music in the background. Our conversations were general, and I was cautious about what information I gave him. It seemed the sensible thing to do until I secured legal representation.

An on-line petition had been started in an effort for us to receive an Extreme Home Makeover. Although we did not initiate or accept that offer, we did appreciate the consideration they extended to us.

Billy and Doug’s other brother, Jackie, and their wives stopped to offer their help. From that point on Billy would become a much-needed source of financial and legal guidance.

Many of the girls’ friends arrived to give support.

We learned that Takla, a high school friend of Jess, had lost a cousin on Flight 3407. Family members had been taken to the Indigo Hotel in Amherst, where a command center was set-up for the FBI, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and airline officials. Takla came and kept us updated on those developments. Billy also kept abreast of that situation.

Lori’s friends Holly and Dave were especially helpful. Holly and Lori brought me a planner to keep me organized. They sorted through boxes of donated items that were already pouring in. They helped me construct a list of things I needed to do: call insurance companies, stockbrokers, banks, and credit card companies; obtain new legal documents such as wills, birth certificates, licenses, passports, social security cards—all destroyed in the house. Get in touch with people who had called: Doug’s boss and the director of human resources, state police officers, Monsignor Leising from Nativity Church, and many others. We also made a list of important numbers: The Erie County Crisis Center, disaster coordinator, Continental reps, American Red Cross personnel. These lists seemed endless.

Friends from work brought food donated by the local Dash’s Market. I tried to eat soup, but just could not seem to stomach anything.

Jill’s boyfriend Dan arrived from Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

One by one relatives and friends departed. The Sabres were playing that night, and we decided to watch the game. We all were thinking about the game Jill and Doug had gone to the day before the crash.

At one point, Jill’s expression became anxious.

“What is it?” I asked. She pointed to the clock. It read 10:20. Had it been only twenty-four hours since our lives had changed so drastically?

We settled down for what we hoped would be some rest. Later, I heard Jess crying and I went to her. “I keep thinking about Dad being burned,” she sobbed.

I tried to reassure her that he would have died instantly, and hopefully had not suffered. We all prayed that was true.

We were so exhausted that sleep did finally come, but I awoke before dawn. I got up and sat in a chair. I knew I had to eat something; a few spoonfuls of soup had been my only nourishment. What could I keep down? Even a small piece of coffee cake seemed hard to swallow.

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