Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

February 13, 2014

Time turns Flight 3407 tragedy into story of action

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Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Anniversaries can sneak up on you sometimes. This one did.

I can’t believe it was five years ago nearly to the hour of this writing a perfectly normal airplane making an entirely routine flight on a chilly February night in Western New York simply fell out of the sky.

In the hours and days that followed we came to know airline engineering jargon. We learned an airline pilot working for a regional carrier flying into Buffalo didn’t sleep much and had to augment her salary working at a Starbucks a continent away. We came to know the faces and stories of the 50 souls who died.

And in the five years since then we’ve come to know the inspiring story of those surviving family members who faced unimaginable tragedy foursquare, turning pain and loss into action to make sure it never happens again.

Five years ago Wednesday we came to know the call numbers 3407.

The news at first seemed like it was a mistake. Reports surfaced as the local television stations were coming on air that a small plane — we all assumed a Cessna or something like it — had crashed in Clarence Center.

Then the first images began to surface. A freelance photographer for this paper sent a blurry, snow-dotted image of a massive fireball and a house that had been leveled. The video made it to the 11 p.m. news and it was clear this would be no small story.

It was immediately clear something very big and very sad had happened.

The next 48 hours are a blur for me. Working a double already that night, we tore up the paper, scribbled out what details we had and fired up the presses.

I fired out to Clarence and a double turned into a triple sitting in a town hall conference room packed with reporters from every television and newspaper in the region awaiting confirmation of what we’d all been able to ascertain: A Continental flight from Newark, N.J., never arrived at its destination.

After filing overnight on the web, I came home, grabbed an hour’s fitful sleep, put on a clean shirt and came back to the office. 

Our reporters, still sleepy-eyed, huddled to make a plan. Over the next 16 hours I shouted myself hoarse, cellphone and office phone each to an ear at the same time for much of the day and into the night.

Some incredibly talented journalists did some stunning work and despite the tragic subject, I’ll never be more proud of a day’s newspaper than the one we made that day. We felt a deep and abiding responsibility to get it right, each one of us. And we did.

As the news filtered in, the mammoth scope of the tragedy began to take shape. This being Western New York it seemed like everyone knew someone — or knew someone who knew someone — who had been affected.

I got a tearful call from my mother when it became known my old Sunday school teacher and the cantor at the temple my family attended when I was a boy was among the dead. Her name was Susan Wehle and she was among the kindest people I’ve ever known. She had a beautiful singing voice and used it with sincerity and devotion. It was a heartbreaking loss for our area’s tight knit Jewish community.

There were vigils and moments of silence — perhaps the most poignant at the Buffalo Sabres game that night when 18,000 people stood quiet for a full minute, nary a dry eye in the house.

But for all we experienced — the incomprehension, the grief, the funerals — in those first hours and days, there exists an ending befitting this community’s real spirit.

Loss turned into action. Families bound together by such a senseless event came together to fight for better and tougher laws about airline safety.

Thanks to their courageous and inspirational effort, five years later the traveling public can be assured pilots on smaller airlines are trained as rigorously as their counterparts at major airlines. They have more sleep now and are more alert at a jet liner’s controls. They know how to respond to an aerodynamic stall, the final determination of what brought 3407 down.

Reading that day’s news — remembering the rush of adrenaline covering it, the crush of emotion seeing it up close — still makes me cry.

In the Feb. 14, 2009 edition, Valentine’s Day and two days after the plane went down, we ran an editorial. It’s closing paragraphs read:

“Friday we cried together. We mourned and prayed together. In the days to come there will be more tears, more mourning more prayers.

“It seems impossible to say now, but we will get through this. We will endure and, yes, we will grow. We have what is needed most in times like this. We have heart.”

Five years later and truer words have never been written.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News, as he was five years ago during the crash of Flight 3407. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.