Loved Ones Get Buffalo Crash Victims' Belongings

By CAROLYN THOMPSON
|  Wednesday, Aug 12, 2009  |  Updated 10:45 AM EDT
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Dramatic Photos: Plane Crashes Into Suburban Home

AP

Everyone on board and one person on the ground were killed when the commuter plane crashed into a Buffalo home.

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A small scrap of T-shirt, about six inches square, smoky gray-brown. A black sock, missing the heel. They were all that remained of the clothes Darren Tolsma was wearing when he died on Continental Connection Flight 3407. His wife, Robin, wanted them back.

     Jennifer West hopes she'll see her husband, Ernie's, wedding band again. A tattered slice of his black leather wallet made it home, along with the four, somehow perfectly intact photos of their toddler daughter, Summer Tyme, he'd tucked inside.
    
Employees of a disaster recovery company recently delivered some victims' personal effects. But Ernie's gold-trimmed platinum ring and other items -- his watch, the BlackBerry his wife called endlessly the night of the crash -- have yet to make it home.
    
It's not known whether they were among the thousands of items that survived the flames when Flight 3407 crashed into a house six months ago, killing all 49 people on board and a man in the house. It crashed just two miles from the Wests' suburban Buffalo, N.Y., home.
    
Maybe the ring will turn up in the next phase of this slow and emotional recovery process, when Jennifer West, Robin Tolsma and others still grieving their losses are again asked to look through a computerized catalog and claim what is left from that night.
    
Roughly 30,000 items yet to be matched with victims are expected to be ready for viewing within the next two months. They are likely a jumble of passengers' belongings and household items from the Clarence Center home flattened in the crash.
    
The disaster recovery company, BMS-Global, listed more easily identifiable items in June. They are making their way home now, each cleaned and wrapped in white tissue, as much to protect the hearts of those receiving them as the items themselves.
    
Shreds of winter coats and gloves, car keys, tooth brushes, laptop computers, shoes.
    
"Every item was wrapped with such care that you would have thought they'd wrapped a present,'' Tolsma said. She placed her husband's gold wedding band, inscribed "Forever 8-29-86,'' on her finger beside her own after unwrapping it July 15. She buried other things in her back yard.
    
While they wait for the belongings, many families are in the public eye, prodding congressional leaders for air-safety changes and honoring the victims at public memorials. Bringing what they can of their loved ones home has been more private, the families clinging to bits and pieces of lives lost, long after the funerals.
    
There have been unimaginable moments.
    
On Memorial Day, Jennifer West held her husband's left foot in her hands. It had been identified more than two months after Ernie's initial remains were cremated. She wasn't required to view the foot, wrapped in a plastic bag, before allowing a funeral director to cremate it. But she wanted to.
    
"I kissed it and said I'm sorry I couldn't be there,'' Jennifer, who had been married four years, recounted at her Clarence home, where Ernie still lives in collages of photographs inside and the perennials and poplar trees he planted outside.
    
"I know it sounds bizarre but it was comforting because I thought, now I can be there for you,'' she said.
    
Ernie West and Darren Tolsma were traveling together for defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. when they died. Their wives barely knew each other before the crash but have leaned on each other for support since.
    
It is a bond that reaches across all the families, many of whom have organized "Families of Continental Flight 3407.'' Through it, they draw strength and show strength.
    
In May, members sat through a National Transportation Safety Board hearing that exposed pilot fatigue and inadequate training as possible causes of the crash. They have met with transportation officials and lawmakers, pushing for a new database of pilot training records and seeking more research on pilot fatigue.
    
"We've all been devastated and we want to make sure that no one else has to suffer through what we have,'' said Kevin Kuwik, whose girlfriend Lorin Maurer died in the crash. Kuwik is the son of a former western New York mayor and, with Lorin's father, Scott Maurer, has led the efforts.
    
The families believe the crash was preventable, the result of Colgan Air's pilots flying in icy conditions that they may not have been equipped to handle. Toward the end of its flight from Newark, the twin-engine turboprop stalled, then plunged from the sky five miles from Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
    
"There were eight countries and nine states and two Purple Hearts on that flight, and 11 daughters are not going to have their dads to walk them down the aisle,'' said Tolsma, who quit her job as an English teacher after the crash. "We want people to know that.''
    
Two of musician Chuck Mangione's band members -- Coleman Mellett and Gerry Niewood -- also were among the victims, as were 9/11 widow Beverly Eckert, and expectant mother Jennifer Neill, whose unborn child the family group counts as the 51st victim. Brian Kuklewicz left behind twin 9-year-old sons, and a wife, Karen, who has since suffered a stroke that has left her partially paralyzed and relying on family to care for the boys.
    
"You want something positive, even though there's no way it's going to ever be equal to what we lost,'' Kuwik said. "You want something that you can point to and say we just didn't stare at the wall and crumble. We tried to make something better.''

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