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Survivors who lost home visit scene of Upstate New York plane crash

Karen Wielinski and daughter Jill, who barely escaped when the plane hit their house, killing her husband and 49 others, return briefly with family members. Investigators continue to collect evidence.

February 19, 2009|Associated Press

CLARENCE CENTER, N.Y. — The woman who barely escaped with her daughter when a commuter plane plowed into their house, killing her husband and all 49 people aboard, returned to the disaster scene Wednesday. While she was there, investigators continued to collect evidence they hope will tell them what brought down the aircraft.

Karen Wielinski, 57, and her daughter Jill, 22, were escorted by police to the site where her home once sat. They were accompanied by family members and stayed about 15 minutes, with police forming a human barrier to shield them from photographers as they returned to their cars.

The Wielinski home was destroyed when Continental Flight 3407, going from Newark, N.J., to Buffalo, N.Y., fell from the sky Feb. 12, landed flat on top of the house and burst into flames. Other houses on the quiet suburban street were virtually unaffected by the crash, although one house next door was damaged.

On Wednesday, investigators removed part of the tail, the largest piece of the aircraft still intact.

The National Transportation Safety Board is analyzing the weather, evidence from the scene, data from flight recorders, and accounts from the crew and from other pilots flying 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.

Colgan Air, which was operating the flight for Continental Airlines, issued a statement defending its crew training programs after investigators said they would examine whether the pilot overreacted when an automatic safety system sensed the plane was slowing down dangerously.

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. Lorenda Ward, NTSB's chief investigator, said one of many possibilities for the crash was that 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 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.

Saying it felt "compelled to comment on public speculation," Colgan said its crew training programs meet or exceed regulatory requirements for all major airlines and are designed in coordination with the aircraft manufacturer.

NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said it was 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 investigation would also look at whether the recommendation should be a requirement, something NTSB has supported for years.

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