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Flight 3407 families begin remembrance with Forest Lawn ceremony

Two children – one who was less than a year old when her mother died and her 16-year-old sister – laid a wreath before a crypt at Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Then others who suffered the same sort of loss stepped forward in the cold. One by one, 51 people each laid a carnation atop that crypt in honor of lives lost that should not have been lost 10 years and a day ago.

And then the Families of Continental Flight 3407 listened to hear, and marvel at, what they have accomplished since the plane bearing their loved ones crashed into a home in Clarence, 10 years ago Tuesday.

"There are people alive today – they don't know who they are – who you saved," said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who described himself and his colleagues as "little instrumentalities" who only helped as the families won passage of landmark aviation safety legislation in 2010.

Monday's wreath-laying ceremony at Forest Lawn began two days of remembrance for the families. At noon Tuesday the families will rededicate the Flight 3407 Memorial at the Clarence Public Library. And then at 8 p.m., they will gather at Zion Lutheran Church in Clarence for a memorial service before walking to the crash site for a moment of silence at 10:17 p.m., the exact time Flight 3407 crashed a decade ago.

Also on Tuesday night in honor of the crash victims, Niagara Falls, the Peace Bridge, the Buffalo City Hall Dome, the Electric Light Tower, the Rath Building and Erie County Hall will be lit in red, the trademark color of the Flight 3407 families.

All those events are open to the public, but Monday's ceremony was a more private chance for the families and the lawmakers who helped them to reflect on the crash and the decade since.

One of the children who laid the wreath at the crypt, Sydney Safran, was weeks from her first birthday when her mother, Kristin Safran of Bradford, Pa., died on board Flight 3407. Her sister, Alexandra, only 6 at the time of the crash, loomed over her little sister as they solemnly placed that wreath.

After the wreath-laying, members of the Flight 3407 families took turns calling out the names of the dead – including "Baby Neill."

Jennifer Neill, 34, of Williamsville was six months pregnant when she died in the plane crash. That's why loved ones placed 51 carnations atop the crypt even though the official crash death toll is listed as 50.

Those who lost loved ones in the crash have learned a lot in past decade. And Marilyn Kausner, who lost her daughter Ellyce in the crash, spelled out some of what they learned by paraphrasing a poem she found among her daughter's belongings.

"We've learned that you should always leave loved ones with loving words. It may be the last time you see them," she said. "We've learned that you can keep going long after you can't."

Then John Kausner, Ellyce Kausner's father, read a remembrance written by Kevin Kuwik, a leader of the Flight 3407 families who could not attend this week's memorial events.

"They were accomplished musicians. Successful business people. An internationally renowned human rights expert," Kuwik recalled. "Defense contractors dedicated to our nation's security. A couple and their 12-year-old son. Vietnam veterans. An off-duty pilot.

"They were parents. Siblings. Children. Grandparents. Uncles. Aunts. Cousins. Dear friends. And so much more."

And since their death, those they left behind have accomplished so much more. The aviation safety bill passed in 2010 tightened rules on pilot training, experience and rest. And lawmakers who attended Monday's service pointed to that law as the reason why no U.S. commercial passenger plane has crashed in the past decade.

Acknowledging the crash remains heartbreaking, Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said: "It's heartwarming that you have dedicated yourselves to helping millions of people who you will never meet, and they will never meet you, all toward the goal of making something better, so that no one else will have to experience what all of you did."

Schumer agreed, saying: "You are Western New York's greatest generation. You've done amazing things."

And for that reason, the names of those who died will never die, noted Joseph P. Dispenza, Forest Lawn's president.

"We know here at the cemetery that unfortunately, our loved ones and ourselves will ultimately die three times," Dispenza said. "The first time you do, it's when someone tells your loved one: 'I'm sorry, he or she is gone.' The second time you die is when your body is committed to the earth. And the third and final time you die is the last time someone says your name.

"And congratulations to all of you for making sure that last one doesn't happen for the names of your beloved here on this crypt," Dispenza concluded.

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