United Methodists Respond in Aftermath of Crash

February 19, 2009

By Marilyn J. Kasperek*

Feb. 16, 2009 | CLARENCE CENTER, N.Y. (UMNS)

United Methodists have actively joined the effort to help those impacted by the loss of Continental Flight 3407.


That flight was about seven miles from Buffalo Niagara International Airport when it went down around 10:20 p.m. on Feb. 12, striking a house in Clarence Center. All 49 people aboard were killed, along with one person in the house.


United Methodists were among the first responders on the scene, law enforcement securing the area, clergy responding to calls, volunteers caring for the families of those lost, and many praying and asking "how can we help."


The Rev. Don and Barb Weaver - veterans on the Red Cross Critical Response team and members of the United Methodist Western New York Conference - were called for help early on Feb. 13 by the local Red Cross.


Within 20 minutes, they had pulled together what they needed. Gini Archer and Dot Norsen of Victor United Methodist Church and Judy Bezon, formerly of Sodus United Methodist Church, joined the Weavers and set up a child-friendly place where many of the grieving families are staying.


In Clarence Center, the small, closely-knit community where the plane went down, the Reverends Chuck Smith and David Kofahl joined with other clergy in the Town of Clarence to offer comfort, listen to conversations and concerns, and to begin to craft response to community needs expected once the attention leaves.

"We are trying to prepare for after the media pulls out," said Smith, pastor of Clarence Center United Methodist Church. "So much is unresolved right now, changing so fast. Everyone wants to help."

Temporary memorial site

His congregation, located at the corner of Clarence Center and Herr Road, is a temporary memorial site for those wishing to drop off expressions of sympathy. The temporary site will be cared for by the congregation. Once access is available to the scene of the tragedy, they will respectfully transfer the items to that location. (In photo at right, camera crews set up for a Feb. 15 service at Clarence Center (N.Y.) United Methodist Church.)


During services at the Clarence Center Church on Feb. 15, the church bells tolled 50 times, once for each of the dead.


At the family center, there are pillows on the floor for snuggling up to read a book, Playdoh, paints and markers, glue and scissors for creative expression, learning and sharing centers, cuddly toys, puppets, and a suitcase filled with blocks and tools.


A mat on the floor is filled with emergency vehicles and airplanes where children can play through what they are experiencing with someone close by to listen, hug, and just be there.


Team members are highly trained, credentialed, and experienced giving children a safe secure support system. "It is so important to have people trained to know what to do with children in times of disaster," said Mrs. Weaver.


She has seen the value, having set up similar centers following numerous disasters around the world, including the Family Assistance Center following 9/11. There, the team saw about 100 children a day, each having experienced the death of someone they loved.


Families who have lost loved ones in the crash are given a safe secure place to stay, away from the media, where they can receive information before it is released to the public, share their experiences with each other, and access support from counselors and others trained to walk with others through this kind of disaster.


Prepared to be present for the families for up to 10 days, the team makes themselves as available as they can to parents and children, the Weavers added.

Heard flight fly over

Smith (in photo at left) and his family heard Flight 3407 fly over and experienced their home shaking three times shortly thereafter. They live about a half-mile to the east of the crash site. "Many parents are asking me how to reassure their children, knowing their homes will remain on the flight path," he said.


Available to first responders in the initial hours following the crash, Clarence pastors were able to help coordinate obtaining needed food and other supplies for those helping throughout the day on Feb. 13.


They and many United Methodists from their congregations shared in a community prayer service at the Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church that afternoon, offering support in any way they could. Smith noted that they may make counselors available to the community at large if it is determined to be helpful.


The Rev. Keith Manry, pastor of nearby Akron (N.Y.) First United Methodist Church and chaplain of the Akron Volunteer Fire Company, was present at the fire hall when the eight-man crew called to the crash site returned. Experiences at the scene need to stay within the fire company, so his ability to be there for them was critical, according to the Akron Fire Chief Terry Lotz.


"I'm inspired by these volunteers," Manry said, "it is profound the depth of their commitment to others, that they can deal with what they have seen and return home to their regular jobs, ready to do it again."


One United Methodist congregation spent Feb. 13 rallying around one of their families, bringing meals, listening, and caring. One United Methodist clergy member lost a close friend. All were living out their faith within a community in shock and only beginning to grieve.


"Most of it is time together," Mrs. Weaver said, "to be present and provide an opportunity for healing."


*Marilyn J. Kasperek is director of communications for the United Methodist Western New York and North Central New York Annual Conferences.