CLARENCE, N.Y. (AP/WBEN) -- After a commuter flight fell from the sky onto a western New York home five years ago, the relatives of the passengers killed were too grief-stricken to appreciate the outpouring of support they received from strangers.
At Wednesday's memorial service on the anniversary of the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, the families plan to thank those who supported them - and vow to continue their fight to make air travel safer.
The observances begin with a service at 8 at Zion Lutheran Church, and will be followed by a candlelight vigil at 10, and a procession to the crash site on Long Street, as in past years (pictured R)
"There have been a multitude of people that have helped us and we just want to take some time to thank them," said vigil organizer Marilyn Kausner, whose 24-year-old daughter, Elly Kausner, was on her way home for a visit from law school when the plane experienced an aerodynamic stall and dropped onto a house five miles short of Buffalo Niagara International Airport. All 49 people aboard and a man in the house were killed.
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|In the five years since the crash, how much has been done to improve flight safety?
Robin Tolsma, who lost her husband in that crash, says commercial airlines are on par with new flight safety standards, but it's regional carriers who are resistant to change
. "If you can't train your pilots, you don't have safe pilots, and if you go bankrupt, oh well," says Tolsma, who contends the regional airlines are more concerned with profits than safety. She says there needs to be one level of safety for that reason.
Tolsma says she loves the fact pilots have to rest. "
We know (Flt 3407 co-pilot) Rebecca Shaw was tired, the full idea of her having a cold is moot. She traveled from Seattle to New Jersey to catch a flight to Buffalo," explains Tolsma.
She also is pleased airlines must tell you who's flying that plane. "Whether it's a regional carrier taking over for a commercial carrier or what kind of aircraft it is, that's a big difference. An educated flyer is the best flyer you can have," says Tolsma.
The passengers' families have been helping the community, too, since the Feb. 12, 2009, crash - most notably by successfully lobbying for changes meant to raise the safety level of regional carriers to that of major airlines.
"It's the right thing to do," said Karen Eckert, who with her sister, Susan Bourque, have made more than 60 trips to Washington as part of a core group of activist relatives.
Their efforts have led to the most substantial pilot training requirements in two decades. Among them, airlines will have to provide flight simulator training for pilots on how to deal with a stall. The group also has secured changes in flight and rest period rules to prevent fatigue and has ensured that ticket sellers disclose the regional carrier operating a flight at the time of purchase.
Flight 3407 was operated out of Newark, N.J., for Continental by now-defunct regional carrier Colgan Air and by a pilot and first officer who, the families would learn, had been inadequately trained on how to deal with a stall and were flying on little rest.
"It's so clear that there were so many issues and this was a totally preventable crash," said Eckert, whose sister, 9/11 widow Beverly Eckert, was killed. "It struck us at the beginning, how could this have happened?"
The group's efforts continue toward creation of a centralized database of pilot records, a crew mentoring program and onboard safety management systems to analyze issues in flight.
To keep their efforts and loved ones' memories alive, the families have also helped establish a private memorial at the crash site and are involved in plans for a public monument at the Clarence library. There is an annual 5K run and scholarships have been given in passengers' names. Elly's Angels, formed in memory of Kausner's daughter, has sent volunteers to help at numerous charitable events.
Continuing along another track over the last five years have been the dozens of wrongful death lawsuits filed by passenger families against Continental, Colgan and its parent company, Pinnacle Air. As of the end of January, all but eight federal lawsuits and four brought in state Supreme Court, had been settled for undisclosed sums.
Any remaining federal cases are scheduled to be tried at the end of May, with the state cases scheduled for trial in August.
Reflecting on the five years since she lost her husband, Ernie West, Jennifer West said she's recently turned a corner in her mourning, helped in part by the family group's successes in Washington, and the passage of time.
"For me, at the five-year point, I want to remember how he lived, not how he died," she said of her husband, the father of their now 7-year-old daughter, Summer. West has been able to take off her wedding ring, clean out her husband's office and even schedule a cruise for this month, something she once never could have managed in February - what had been a month of mourning.
"It used to be about Valentine's Day," she said, "and now it's about the crash."
| Congressman Chris Collins (R-Clarence) was Erie County Executive at the time of the crash, heavily involved in the response, and spoke to commemorate the day on the floor of the House of Representatives yesterday
|As did Congressman Brian Higgins, (D-Buffalo)
|U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand issued the following statements to honor the fifth anniversary of the Flight 3407 tragedy|
|Senator Schumer “Five years ago, we senselessly lost mothers, brothers, children, loved ones and friends in a tragic accident, and we remember them today with heavy hearts,” said . “In spite of that tragedy, which shed harsh light on the need to make sweeping changes to our flight safety regulations, the loved ones of those we lost have forged forward in their honor with a singular focus on achieving one level of safety across the airline industry. Without the vigilance and absolutely inspiring dedication of these individuals, we would not be able to say that there are new, safer, laws of the land and sky today.”||Sen. Gillibrand: “Over the last five years, I have gotten to know many of the families who lost loved ones on this tragic day. “Ever since, they have been a constant and powerful presence in the halls of Congress, working to strengthen our nation’s flight safety standards so no other family has to endure the same kind of senseless loss. It is because of their efforts and passion that we have taken some of the most strident steps to improve our aviation system in years. I am continually inspired by their strength and courage in pursuit of justice. And I am forever thankful for their steadfast advocacy.”|