It has been five years since 50 people lost their lives when Continental Flight 3407 crashed into two homes on Long Street in Clarence Center.
Congressman Chris Collins was Erie County Executive at the time of the crash. He remembers getting the phone call that night that a plane had crashed just two miles from his house. He was at the crash site within minutes and he was the first to announce that this plane was indeed Flight 3407, even before federal authorities were ready to announce that themselves.”
“No one else was willing to do it. In fact they were suggesting we wait a couple more hours to do it and I just said that’s unacceptable. And sometimes if you’re the leader you’ve got to lead. And I could just… I had a sense of justified panic the families who knew their loved ones weren’t, you know, weren’t home,” Collins said.
As disaster coordinator for the Town of Clarence, David Bissonette became one of the faces of this tragedy. He was the calm leader of a dedicated army of first responders who raced into the eye of the fire in those frantic, chaotic first moments.
But his more than two decades of emergency management trained Bissonette for a tragedy of this magnitude. He had no choice but to shift into commander mode, quickly setting up a command center and also helping neighbors near the crash site to move to safety.
“The visual impact of seeing a fully involved house and aircraft remnants… It’s upsetting. Anytime there’s a crisis of this magnitude, it takes a toll on the first responder. Those are the things we carry day after day,” Bissonette said. “I can sit here and tell you five years later the bond through first responders has never been stronger and it really makes us a resilient region.”
He added, “It really is kind of an eye opener when you start looking back that things can happen very quickly and change very quickly in a person’s life. And you start taking stock in the good things. They mean that much more to you. So you value your friends, your family and maybe not get so hung up on pettiness.”
Kathy Johnson lost her husband Kevin in the crash.
“I’ll look at a picture now of him and it almost looks dated. It’s been five years and that’s when it seems so long. Other times it feels like he’s right there with me. It’s hard to describe,” she said.
Karen Eckert, who lost her sister Beverly, said, “The grief was terrible. But what we try to do is be inspired by Beverly. I think of her everyday and remember her with a smile.”
The families of those who lost their lives have worked through their grief and through heartache to accomplish something bigger than themselves. Though this somber anniversary is filled with sorrow, it’s also bittersweet. The crash in Clarence Center was blamed on pilot error, and families made it their mission to make major changes to the aviation industry.
Days after meeting with President Barack Obama, Beverly Eckert, a 9/11 widow, would lose her life in the crash of Flight 3407.
Eckert said, “That was february 6. Then on february 12 she was killed. I think what was remarkable to us is that the president of the United States the next morning went on TV and said what a remarkable inspiration she was.”
Inspired by her sister’s courage, Eckert alongside the families of Flight 3407 have fought to change the aviation industry by lobbying Congress to make skies safer for the flying public.
“It’s channeling energy; it’s channeling frustration. I mean, all those things that build up. We’re stronger as a group and so it all comes together and we make things happen.”
Government reports blame the crash on pilot error. Investigations revealed a stunning lack of training among some regional airline pilots. It was also revealed that Captain Marvin Renslo and First Officer Rebecca Shaw both commuted long distances to get to work before getting into the cockpit.
“It didn’t have to happen. That’s what makes you so angry. It was a crash that was a crash, it wasn’t an accident. It shouldn’t have happened,” Johnston said.
But positive changes have come about in the last year, alone. Commercial airline pilots must now have a minimum of 1,000 co-pilot hours. They must be at least 23-years-old and have an enhanced airline transport pilot certificate with 50 hours of multi-engine aircraft experience.
Commercial pilots are now required to get at least 10 hours of rest between shifts, including eight hours for uninterrupted sleep. Pilots must also have 30 consecutive hours of rest each week, which is a 25 percent increase over past requirements.
Co-pilots must now have 1,500 hours of flight time, which is six times more than the old standard of 250 hours. Also, all co-pilots must be certified in the aircraft they are flying.
And just this past November, the FAA released new training guidelines, the first major update to pilot training rules in almost two decades. These new rules will force pilots to prove they can prevent a stall in a cockpit simulator. A stall is what brought down Flight 3407.
All of these changes came about because the families of Flight 3407 refused to allow the problems that led to the loss of their loved ones to continue.
“When you look at the backgrounds of the people on that plane, they were special. They were outliers. They were successes in their field. And another little unique element to this is most of them had friends and family in Western New York,” Eckert said.
Johnston added, “I think we’re very, very unified and we want to make things right. Like we had said, none of us really knew there was such a discrepancy between the regionals and the major carriers.”
Families are still fighting for crewmember professional development and a database that would track pilots and flight attendants throughout their careers.
Most of the families have now reached settlements with Continental, Colgan Air and Colgan’s parent company Pinnacle Airlines. But others are still waiting for justice. Eight cases remain in federal court, while four remain in State Supreme Court. Defense attorney Terry Connors is representing these families.
“We will address the core areas of liability, what the airlines did wrong and how these accidents, how these catastrophes could have been prevented,” Connors said. “It goes to everything from the beginning of the hiring of certain pilots, right through their training, right up until the very day of that crash.”
The first wrongful death trial is scheduled to begin in federal court in May.
In the meantime, families will gather on Wednesday for a day of remembrance and reflection. A memorial service will be held at 8 p.m. at the Zion Lutheran Church on Clarence Center Road. From there, families will walk together by candlelight to the memorial on Long Street to mark the exact time of the crash five years ago.