Survivors return to N.Y. house leveled in plane crash last week

Thursday, February 19, 2009
David Duprey ~ Associated Press
Wreckage from a plane crash is loaded onto a flatbed trailer Wednesday for removal at the scene where Continental Flight 3407 crashed into a home in Clarence, N.Y.

CLARENCE, N.Y. -- The woman and her daughter who barely escaped when an airplane plowed into their house, killing the woman's husband and all 49 people aboard the plane, returned to the scene Wednesday.

While she was there, investigators continued to collect evidence they hope will tell them what brought down the aircraft.

Karen Wielinski was escorted by police onto the site where her home once stood. She and other family members, including daughter Jill, got out of the cars briefly and stayed at the crash site about 15 minutes. Police formed a human barrier to shield them from photographers as they returned to their cars.

The Wielinskis did not speak with reporters Wednesday.

Their house was destroyed when Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark, N.J., to Buffalo fell from the sky Feb. 12 and landed flat on top of the home. Other houses on the quiet suburban street just outside Buffalo were virtually untouched, though one house next door was damaged.

A second group of mourners, believed to be family members of other victims, also visited the site Wednesday.

In her only interview since the crash, Karen Wielinski, 57, told a local radio station she and her daughter were watching television when the aircraft smashed through the roof, pinning them in the wreckage.

"Planes do go over our house, but this one just sounded really different, louder, and I thought to myself, 'If that's a plane, it's going to hit something,'" Wielinski told WBEN-AM the day after the crash. "The next thing I knew the ceiling was on me."

Wielinski said she pushed her way out of the debris and crawled through a hole in the wreckage as fire erupted around her. She said 22-year-old Jill Wielinski managed a similar escape, but her husband, 61-year-old Douglas Wielinski, was trapped.

"To me it looked like the plane just came down in the middle of the house and unfortunately that was where Doug was," she said.

Investigators on Wednesday removed part of the tail, the largest piece of the aircraft still intact.

The National Transportation Safety Board is analyzing the weather, data from the scene, data from black-box recorders, the crew and accounts from other pilots who flew nearby on the night of the accident to try to determine what caused the nation's first deadly crash of a commercial airliner in 2 1/2 years.

The NTSB will also examine whether the pilot overreacted when an automatic safety system sensed the plane was slowing down dangerously, said Lorenda Ward, NTSB's chief investigator.

The pilot pulled back on the plane's controls after the safety system tried to push the nose downward to gain speed and increase lift. Ward said one of many possibilities is the pilot pulled back too hard, bringing the plane's nose too high up in an attempt to prevent the stall and dooming the aircraft.

Flight 3407, which was being operated by Colgan Air, was about 1,600 feet above the ground at the time and aviation safety experts said this week that it might have been too low to recover from a stall.

Keith Holloway, an NTSB spokesman, said it is still too early to definitively say what brought the plane down.

So far, the NTSB has not found anything mechanically wrong with the plane.

The pilot's actions are being scrutinized to determine whether he could have acted differently. The pilot did not disengage the autopilot after encountering what was noted to be "significant ice" -- disregarding recommendations from the NTSB and his own airline.

Ward said the NTSB probe will also look at whether the recommendation should be a requirement, something NTSB has supported for years.

As in every crash, Capt. Marvin Renslow's experience and training also will be closely studied.

Renslow had amassed 110 hours of flying experience on the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400. He also had thousands of hours flying a similar, smaller turboprop plane, which experts say would have prepared him for handling the Dash 8 in icy weather.

The NTSB will look into the type of training the pilots received, how they performed, how many hours they flew in the seven days before the crash, how much rest they had and what they did in the 72 hours before the accident, Chealander said. That includes a look at whether they drank any alcohol or took drugs.

The agency also will study whether the wintry weather played a role in the crash.

The full investigation is expected to last at least a year.

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