CLARENCE — 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.
“There have been a multitude of people that have helped us and we just want to take some time to thank them,” said 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.
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.
“Their call for ‘one level of safety’ has become a rallying cry for all of those who want to make sure that this kind of preventable tragedy is not visited upon other families and other communities,” U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., said on the floor of the House of Representatives on Tuesday.
“The entire American traveling public owes a debt of gratitude to these families who turned tragedy into purpose,” said Higgins, who with the rest of the region’s Congressional delegation, supported the changes.
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.”