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Empty Thanksgiving places set for parents lost in Zoar Valley tragedy

Linda Kornowski set two empty settings at her Thanksgiving table: one for her son, William J. Green III, and the other for her daughter-in-law, Amanda Green.

On Aug. 20, the Greens were hiking with their two young sons, Jacob, 7, and Alexander, 4, in Zoar Valley, a state preserve about 35 miles south of the city, when the Buffalo family fell down the gorge. Both parents died. Alexander was badly hurt. Erie County sheriff's deputies found Jacob walking along the gorge floor with a broken ankle and arm.

Jacob spent about a week and a half at the old Women & Children's Hospital and Alexander spent a month there. Now, the boys are living with Kornowski and her husband, going back to school and figuring out how to go on without Mommy and Daddy.

Thanksgiving was the first big holiday since the terrible accident and the boys' family knew it would be a tough one. For all of them.

"We'll try to keep it as normal as possible," Kornowski said Wednesday. But she also wanted the boys to know their parents will never be forgotten. So places were set.

Kornowski has six other children and they were all prepared to shower the children with love on Thanksgiving, just as they have since August.

"We always have a big Thanksgiving," Kornowski said.

William and Amanda Green had offbeat sensibilities and liked Halloween so much that they decided to get married on Oct. 31, 2008, in Buffalo City Court, family members say. (Photo provided by family)

As heartbreaking as it was to spend the holidays without the Greens, the boys' relatives remain heartened by the outpouring of love and support they've received.

"It's overwhelming," said Nicole Miller, Amanda Green's sister. "People from every walk of life, people who weren't even from the Buffalo area that had just heard of the story…. It really touched a lot of people. People support us in any way possible."

It started with the sheriff's deputies who rescued the boys. They have kept close tabs on the brothers, visiting often. They made the boys "honorary deputies" and once drove up in their SWAT truck to drive the kids to Toys-R-Us in Hamburg for a shopping spree.

"They were just ecstatic," Kornowski said of the boys' reaction to their special trip. She said it's why Jacob and Alexander call their deputies "their guys."

The Sheriff's Office investigated the Zoar Valley tragedy but officials have not said if they determined what happened. The boys' relatives did not want to talk about that. But they did want to give thanks to those who have helped.

The staff at the old Women & Children's Hospital took special care of the children and family.

"From the therapists to the doctors to the nursing staff. Even the security guards. They'd ask: How are they doing? How are you? Can I get you anything?" Miller said.

In the weeks after the accident, friends came to the family's aid in small yet meaningful ways. They dropped off groceries, filled up their cars with gas and would do the dishes.

The staff at the boys' Buffalo school held a basket raffle. BJ's Wholesale in Hamburg, where Kornowski works, held a luncheon to raise money for the kids. Coyote Café held a fundraiser. Toys-R-Us donated. St. Ambrose Church in Buffalo has helped too.

More than 500 people, many of them strangers, contributed to a account Miller set up for the boys. She set a goal of $20,000. It was up to $28,745 as of Saturday.

Kornowski can't even count how many cards the boys and her family have received.

"It's so easy to just feel alone and cast out and 'What do I do now?'" Miller said. "And then to have people rally around you, people who don't have any real connection to you, just that they're human beings. To see that overwhelming support of how people really are so inherently good and caring, it lets you sleep a little easier at night."

Kornowski couldn't be more thankful.

"Thank you for your generosity," she said. "It's greatly appreciated."

Jacob and Alexander are aware of the community's kindness, their grandmother said.

Now, they're trying to learn a new way to be a family. Kornowski takes the boys to the kinds of places their parents used to bring them. The family is also helping them grieve.

Monday was Amanda Green's birthday and the family took the boys to her gravesite. They sang "Happy Birthday" and brought balloons. Jacob picked out a Christmas nutcracker to leave as a present. "He loves nutcrackers. He said she'd know that it's from him for her and his dad," Kornowski said.

On Thanksgiving, Kornowski and Miller wanted to make sure Jacob and Alexander are surrounded with love and also to know that their parents will never be forgotten.

It would be hard to look at those two empty place settings, the grandmother and aunt said. But it could have been worse. There could have been four.

The part of Zoar Valley state preserve where William and Amanda Green, and their children, Jacob and Alexander, were found features some of the highest cliffs in the entire gorge. (News file photo)

Couple who died at Zoar Valley loved nature, spending time with sons

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