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Scott Bylewski, JD '98, MBA '95 & BA '95
A leader steps forward amid crisis
Story by Ann Whitcher-Gentzke, Photo by Douglas Levere, BA '89
Scott Bylewski, JD ’98, MBA ’95 & BS ’95, was “winding down” on the couch in his Clarence Center, NY, home when he heard the crash that would change his life and alter the lives of so many others.
“You’re the elected official—you are the leader of the town. They need you to be there for them. They need you to have that steady hand on the wheel, the tiller, the rudder.”Scott Bylewski
Within minutes, the 37-year-old Clarence Town supervisor found himself marshaling all his forces, tapping his UB law and business degrees in ways that can’t be communicated or foreseen in a textbook or a lecture hall. During a crisis that stretched into weeks, he presided over his community of 28,700 with a firm and steady hand.
Late on the evening of February 12, 2009, Continental Flight 3407 crashed in the small hamlet of Clarence Center near Buffalo, killing all 49 people aboard and one person on the ground, Douglas C. Wielinski, BA ’69. It was the worst U.S. air disaster in more than seven years. Six other UB alumni were among the dead.
Just as the large UB alumni presence in Western New York figured in the death toll, so did it play a large role in the community response, including that of Bylewski and many of his neighbors.
“At the time, it sounded like a hollow metal door slamming,” Bylewski recalls. “I was thinking back to the Buffalo propane explosion in 1983 that took the lives of five Buffalo firefighters and two civilians.” Bylewski was only a child at the time, but he vividly recalls the rumble and his family’s alarm. Now, 25 years later and hearing a similar crashing sound, he opened the front door and looked outside. “The sky was lit up in red and pink and orange. And I could hear people speaking very loudly, but not screaming or yelling.”
Click here for audio slideshow with Scott Bylewski. Prepared by Charlotte Hsu and Douglas Levere
Bylewski’s wife, Becky, JD ’98, also heard the crash. Their children, Olivia, 4, and Alex, three months, were asleep.
“I got on the phone and started calling our disaster coordinator, David Bissonette, as well as a few of my friends, who are also first responders, to see what they had heard,” he says. “Eventually, I found out that there had been a plane crash. As this was going on, I got dressed and told my wife to ‘make sure you’re with the kids, and if I need to call you that you’re ready to move in case of an area evacuation for safety.’”
Almost immediately, an emergency operations center at Clarence Town Hall was up and running, and filled with responders and officials. A state of emergency was declared at 11:05 p.m.
All the while, an unflappable Bylewski was keeping notes—for the simple reason that “any time you have a disaster it becomes very important to document, to make sure that you know what’s going on, that you can respond with one voice. That was very important, and it was part of the communication piece. We wanted to get the information out there as quickly as we could and in as many ways as we could. We definitely did not want to have to retract information.”
To maintain his composure, Bylewski says he drew on lessons learned from other town incidents, such as the 2002 explosion of a hazardous waste facility, in addition to snow, flooding and other weather events the town has faced—though nothing on this scale. Certainly, his standing as a JAG captain in the New York Guard with a military emergency specialist designation helped prepare him. Primarily, though, Bylewski drew on the presumed expectations of Clarence townspeople and what he owed them as supervisor.
“You’re the elected official—you are the leader of the town,” he says. “They need you to be there for them. They need you to have that steady hand on the wheel, the tiller, the rudder—whatever ship-of-state analogy you want to use—and that you can handle the situation. The last thing you need are a lot of people running around adding further panic.”
For a while, Bylewski’s daughter saw her father only on his frequent television briefings that were broadcast nationally and on local airwaves, too. She had gone with her grandmother and aunt to his mother-in-law’s home in Elmira, NY, to stay for about a week. This way, his wife could more easily focus on the needs of their infant son while Bylewski was called away for long hours.
Even in the difficult aftermath, town business continued, sometimes jarringly so. “One of the early calls we got that Monday morning [President’s Day, when the town hall would normally have been closed] was, ‘Hey, I have brush on my street that the town didn’t pick up. I know there’s a plane crash but could somebody pick it up?’ Yeah, that was a little extraordinary,” Bylewski admits with a rueful smile. “But the business of the town does go on—you still had the day-in-and-day-out calls."
Today, Clarence shows few visible scars of the crash—the site looks like that of any recently cleared building demolition. There is no debris, just gravel on a vacant lot. Yet no one can forget what happened here, or ignore the fact that two homes once stood on the site. (The Wielinski home was destroyed in the crash; a second residence was demolished because of structural damage incurred in the accident.)
The experience of leading a community grappling with unexpected tragedy, Bylewski says, teaches profound lessons about human existence. “In general terms, you appreciate the people around you more—the frailty and the fragility of life,” he says. “And in my regular work life, it has changed a lot. I still spend a considerable time dealing with 3407 issues, although the displaced families on Long Street are now back in their homes.”
Sometimes the memory intrudes painfully in Bylewski’s personal life. In May, he traveled to the Long Island–New York City Emergency Management Conference. “My wife and I talked about 3407 and having to be very cognizant of our daughter asking, ‘Where’s Daddy?’ and my wife not being sure if she wanted to tell her that Daddy’s on a plane.”
Beyond these reflections, Bylewski has the historian’s appreciation of how the crash has become part of the town’s collective memory. Established in 1808, Clarence is, in fact, the oldest town in Erie County, and was the site of key events during the War of 1812, for instance. “We still talk here about the burning of the city of Buffalo where everybody came out to Clarence, and published one of the Buffalo newspapers out of a tavern on Main Street,” he points out.
“Then you have the very famous Buffalo River flooding in 1893 when a freighter got loose. It jammed up the ice and flooded a lot of the city. This is a case that we studied in law school for foreseeability.
“Those are all things that become part of the region’s memory and its history—and it impacts the residents. Obviously, for the families and friends of those who were lost on February 12, it’s there and it’s going to be there. So you just keep showing all the respect and compassion you can for them.
“It will forever be part of the town’s fabric, part of our community’s fabric.”
When Flight 3407 fell near Buffalo, UB alumni were among legions of Western New Yorkers ready to volunteer
Story by Charlotte Hsu, Photos by Douglas Levere, BA '89
The flowers were wilted, the mourners mostly gone. It was March 27, about six weeks after the plane crash. Alicia Braaten, BA ’75, was alone at a memorial set up outside a Clarence church for victims of Flight 3407. She was there to document history.
Alicia Braaten, BA ’75
That day, over the course of about eight hours, Braaten, director of the Clarence Historical Museum, sifted through mementos that swarms of visitors had deposited beneath a white canvas tent. She placed the artifacts in archival sleeves for safekeeping and photographed the objects one by one: a black-and-white snapshot of a bride and groom kissing on their wedding day, a Buffalo Sabres cap, a 99-cent bag of plain potato chips, balloons, candles, crosses, teddy bears, and bouquets of long-stemmed roses, yellow carnations and pink-striped lilies in varying stages of decay.
Interspersed among the trinkets were letters, some in English, others in Chinese, some from friends and families of victims, others from strangers.
“Dad,” one began. “I just want you to know how much I love you. I want you in my life so much, and I’m sorry I never always told you how much you mean to me. I am so proud to be your daughter. You’ve taught me so much and I promise to take care of mom. I will miss you & think of you every day.”
The items Braaten catalogued on March 27 now sit in storage, waiting to be shown in a museum some day. She even saved the flowers, burning them and placing their ashes in containers rather than throwing them away.
As unfortunate as it was, it’s now part of our history, and it now needs to be preserved. It needs to be remembered,” says Braaten, who solicited advice from archivists at the Smithsonian Institution and Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, on how best to preserve the Flight 3407 memorial.
“What I did was just a small part. … It was hard to do,” she says. “I stopped reading a lot of the notes as I was going through them, doing the photos and putting things in sleeves, because I just sat there and I was crying.”
Braaten has not yet decided when to display the mementos at the Clarence Historical Museum. One option is to open an exhibit next year around the anniversary of the crash. Braaten wants to consult with other members of the community before settling on a date. She chose not to put the memorial objects on view right away because she thought doing so would be insensitive at a time when grief is still fresh, when people are still trying to move on from the tragedy.
When the time is right, however, the objects Braaten collected will serve as an important historical record. Over the years, emotions will diminish and memories will fade. But the artifacts from the memorial will be preserved, a reminder of all that happened so future generations will not forget.
The flight 3407 accident scene smelled like jet fuel, like burning plastic, like the World Trade Center site after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Tim Talley, BS ’86, says. Talley, a New York State Police zone commander, served as a police operations section chief for five days in Clarence Center as emergency response crews combed through the wreckage, removing debris and searching for human remains. In that time, Talley says he saw “a lot of things that were difficult to see.”
Tim Talley, BS '86
If all the memories—the smells, the sights, the sounds—one stands out in particular. On the Monday after the plane crash, Talley remembers, victims’ loved ones had the chance to visit the accident site.
“What I will never forget,” he says, “are the faces of the family members and the anguish and the sense of loss that they had. So for all the first responders, my thought is that they’re heroes. I think they did a great job at the scene. But I don’t think it’s about any of us. It’s about the people who perished.”
As such, Talley viewed performing his duties as a privilege: “We’re here to serve the people. … It’s a tragedy, you know? You just want to help."
Talley approached his work in Clarence the same way he approached his state police assignments near ground zero helping to oversee security after the 9/11 attacks. In the simplest of terms, he says, “You had a job and you did your job.”
In Clarence Center, Talley’s job was to help secure the crash scene, ensuring that no unauthorized people entered or took photographs of the site. He helped coordinate the work of various organizations involved in the response, which ranged from local law enforcement agencies to the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board. And he looked after his officers, making sure that they had breaks, food and decent radios—also that they were warm enough in below-freezing temperatures.
Talley commuted each day to Clarence Center from his home in Attica, NY. He would arrive around 6 a.m. and work for 12 or 13 hours. Throughout the ordeal he had the support of his wife, Lynn; son, Lee; and daughter, Kelsey. Without their understanding, he says, “I would not have been able to handle the tragedy as I did.”
One night, a woman, a relative of a Flight 3407 passenger, brought flowers, and Talley placed them near the crash site. But it wasn’t until the families made their scheduled visit to the scene on Monday that Talley became very emotional. Before that tour, Talley had not known much about the people who had died in the accident. Fellow Western New Yorkers had begun to learn about the victims from news reports pouring out of Clarence. But Talley, busy working, had not had time to watch television.
When the families came, Talley says, “It became much more emotional and much more difficult, because now, I was making more of a connection with the people who had lost relatives.”
He will never forget their faces.
The day after the plane crash, the boys’ basketball teams at Clarence High School headed south to Jamestown. The junior varsity players, coached by Doug Ratka, EdM ’03 & BA ’99, were scheduled to play in their league championship game.
Doug Ratka, EdM '03 & BA '99
"It was interesting because, normally, the kids are pretty talkative and pretty loud and boisterous on the bus, and it was kind of a quiet ride down,” Ratka, who teaches 10th grade world history, 11th grade U.S. history, and advanced placement government and politics, remembers. Students who did speak up swapped stories about Flight 3407—what they knew about the accident, what they had seen, what they had heard.
The varsity coach, Todd Banaszak, who played basketball at UB for three years in the 1980s, gave a quick speech, letting the players know that if they wanted to talk to the adults about the tragedy, they could. But for the most part, the teachers left the teenagers to converse among themselves.
The idea, Ratka says, was to support the students, allowing those who wanted to discuss the plane crash to do so while providing a sense of normalcy to those who did not. On a day when headlines about Flight 3407 were blaring across the front pages of newspapers and inundating the airwaves, basketball offered a brief reprieve from the blitz of bad news. Though both Clarence teams lost that day, Ratka told his players they should be pleased with their performance.
"From a basketball sense, we played hard. We did what we were supposed to do. They showed a lot of pride in their actions, how they played and how they carried themselves. And obviously, the Jamestown parents and players, they knew whom they were playing against, what had gone on in [Clarence]. We presented our community very well."
Ratka and his fellow teachers continued to comfort and support the teenagers in the weeks after the crash, in part by providing a sense of routine in a trying time. The accident had happened just before the Clarence Central School District’s weeklong February break; Ratka remembers several students telling him they wished they had not had so much time off. Upon returning from the mid-winter recess, they were eager to do school work, to do “the normal stuff,” Ratka remembers.
Though the district had services in place for youth who needed counseling in the aftermath of the tragedy, the role that Ratka and many fellow teachers played was far different: “For these kids, especially because they had the week off of school, every second or every day was spent talking about that incident. I wanted to help them move forward."
On the Sunday after Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence Center, Judith Beyer Hilburger, EdM ’73 & BA ’66, found a lone reporter from BBC working on a story in the Clarence Public Library.
Judith Beyer Hilburger, EdM '73 & BA '66
The man, a local stranger for the British news agency, expressed gratitude to Hilburger, president of the library board of trustees, for services her staff provided following the accident.
The library had been closed to the public for a few days so that emergency response officials could have a place to stage news conferences and the press corps could have a place to use the bathroom, eat and access the Internet.
“He again repeated to me how grateful all of the reporters were,” Hilburger recalls. “He said the food was stupendous, the bathrooms were exceptionally wonderful to have and the building was a wonderful resource. He said, ‘Normally, we’re struggling to get some access, some food.’”
In the preceding days, Hilburger had been in close touch with the town supervisor and the library’s director and caretaker to ensure that the facility was available for people who needed it. While Sunday at the library was calm, Friday and Saturday had passed in a whirlwind.
As Hilburger recalls, “The sides of the road were parked up with cars. There were many satellite trucks with huge dishes, many wires crisscrossed in the parking lot. Every spot was taken. Cars were parked on the grass. … There were all kinds of reporters standing in front of the building, standing on little pieces of cardboard on the grass, giving reports for their cameramen.”
The scene inside was equally busy. Wih the facility serving as a makeshift media center, library staff took on a hodgepodge of duties. David Fairlie, MLS ’92 & BA ’80, a Clarence librarian who grew up in Clarence and now lives in East Amherst, helped man the phones, directing people looking for information about the crash to town officials. Some callers wanted to know how to return books with the library closed. On site, local businesses were donating refreshments—coffee, sandwiches, snacks, sodas. Reporters wanted background on Clarence, and Fairlie did his best to provide answers.
Then, on Sunday, most of the press corps had gone, leaving Clarence as suddenly as they had descended on the town. Fairlie and Hilburger were left with their thoughts.
“At the library, the people who were here were doing a lot,” Hilburger says. “But what they were doing was so small compared to what was going on.”
“All of the different agencies in Clarence, from the town government to the disaster planners to the fire departments, they had all prepared ‘what if’ scenarios,” Fairlie says. “And everything came together smoothly. That we could play a small part, I was thankful that we could at least do that.
“When I was growing up in Clarence, a lot more of it was rural. … We built this library in 2001 because there had been such an increase in the population of Clarence,” Fairlie says. “A lot of people worry that it’s changing the character of the town. Are we losing that sense of community we had when we were a smaller town? And I think something like this really brought everyone together and reminded us that we are still a community and still a small town.”
Only when the wind shifted, blowing the smoke aside and exposing the wrecked aircraft’s landing gear, did volunteer firefighter Steve Klock, BS ’93, realize the plane was a commercial airliner large enough to seat dozens of people. Earlier in the night, when reports of the crash in Clarence began coming over the Amherst Fire Control radio, Klock had thought the plane was probably a small one, a two-seater perhaps.
Steve Klock, BS '93
“I think the word to describe the whole night was, just, surreal,” says Klock, a second captain with the Swormville Fire Company, whose trucks were among the first to arrive at the crash scene. “It was like a movie set. You see these kinds of things on TV, and you never imagine it’s going to happen in your own backyard.”
Klock says he and more than a dozen volunteer firemen were at their East Amherst headquarters on February 12 when they were dispatched to respond to the crash. Trucks from the Clarence Center Volunteer Fire Company and a couple nearby agencies were on scene when the Swormville crews arrived. The sight that greeted the men was ominous.
“The thoughts going through your head—this could be big; you’ve never been to this kind of call before,” says Klock, a volunteer firefighter since 1986. “When we got there, we just saw a big ball of flame. We couldn’t even tell if it was a house or a plane [on fire].
“You could tell immediately by looking at it that you weren’t going to be doing a lot of first aid. … If [the victims] weren’t already out, they weren’t going to come out,” Klock recalls.
For about 20 minutes, before trucks carrying fire-retardant foam arrived from the airport, Klock worked at the front line, pulling a hose close to the wreckage and putting water on the fire. He wore an air pack to avoid inhaling the white smoke that choked the air in sheets so thick he could only identify the fire’s location by its red glow. He heard crackling as pieces of the house the plane had hit fell away, charred.
Through the haze, Klock and fellow first responders caught glimpses of the doomed aircraft and realized, with horror and sadness, that they were looking at a commercial airliner.
After airport personnel arrived, Klock spent time on the scene dragging hoses and standing by, waiting for instructions. He was released from duty around 3 a.m., getting to bed around 4:30 a.m. after showering. His alarm clock rang an hour later, announcing the start of his workday. The controller for Niagara Transformer, Klock stayed in the office until shortly after lunch. Then he went home and took a nap.
The reality of what had happened began to sink in gradually over the next few days as newspapers, radio and television reports provided details about victims and potential causes of the accident.
“Afterwards,” Klock says, “you think about the plane crash and you think about the loss of life. It hits home more when you’re right there.
“You come to the realization that anything can happen anywhere,” he says. “You never want to see that kind of thing happen anywhere. If it had to happen, though, I guess I’m proud I could be a part of it, that I could at least do my small part to help.”
In life, the worst adversity can bring out the best in people. Amid the grief and ruin that lie in the wake of every catastrophe, one can still find reason for hope.
Steve Biegner, BA '92
So it was in the aftermath of the plane crash.
"I learned that when things happen that we don’t expect, that there are a lot of gifts that got placed in our midst to help us survive at these points and also look forward to hope,” says Steve Biegner, BA ’92, a pastor at Clarence Center’s Zion Lutheran Church. “This thing called faith becomes very tangible at those points, and you can see it, you can feel it, hug it, cry with it, laugh with it. … I saw what the best of humanity can be.”
Biegner, who lives in Clarence Center, was watching television on February 12 when he heard Flight 3407 pass by low overhead. Seconds later, he heard the crash, a jarring, shocking sound—like a street plow dropping its blade directly into the ground nearby, he recalls. His wife saw flames from the kitchen window.
Biegner rushed to the accident site, arriving right behind the first fire truck on the scene. He had recently begun serving informally as a chaplain for the Clarence Center Volunteer Fire Company and began to pray for the firefighters battling the towering blaze. He spent much of the week that followed shuttling between the crash area and the Clarence Center firehouse, leading emergency responders in morning devotions, and talking and praying throughout the day with anyone who needed comforting.
Biegner was a witness to tragedy. But even surrounded by death and calamity, he observed beauty in the world. Up at around 2 a.m. one night, he spoke to a firefighter who had chosen to forgo sleep to stand guard, to ensure that families and friends of victims knew someone was always watching over their loved ones. The pastor admired the compassion and generosity of members of the Clarence Center fire company’s ladies auxiliary, who fed hundreds of people each day.
The Saturday after the plane crash, a baby was baptized at Biegner’s church. That child was a tangible sign of hope, a reminder, Biegner says, that “in the midst of a random, horrible tragedy, God’s grace still propels us forward.”
Charlotte Hsu, formerly a reporter for the Las Vegas Sun, is a staff writer with University Communications.
The following UB alumni lost their lives in the crash of Continental Flight 3407 on February 12, 2009:
Jerome D. Krasuski,
of Cheektowaga, NY
Jennifer E. Neill,
of Williamsville, NY
Gerard J. Niewood,
of Glen Ridge, NJ
Jean M. Srnecz,
of Clinton, NJ
of Lancaster, NY
Susan A. Wehle,
BA ’02 & BA ’74,
of Amherst, NY
Douglas C. Wielinski,
of Clarence Center, NY
During his first visit to UB as New York’s governor, David A. Paterson on March 3 announced that he is proposing a scholarship fund to benefit the children and financial dependents of the 50 victims of the crash of Flight 3407 in Clarence Center on February 12.
The Flight 3407 Memorial Scholarship would cover costs for up to four years of undergraduate study at a SUNY or CUNY school, or an amount up to that level at a private college or university in New York State.
Paterson said that in addition to the victims of the tragedy, the fund will honor the police, fire, safety, health and other officials and volunteers—some of whom were present for the announcement—who responded to the crash and provided support to the families of the victims, as well as residents of Clarence Center and the larger community.
“Although we have lost some of our most beloved neighbors, we will continue in our ability to help their families,” he added.
The governor said the idea for the fund surfaced in discussions during the recent UB Day in Albany where he learned of the impact of the crash on the UB community. Among the victims of the crash of Continental Flight 3407 were 12 with known connections to UB as family members of faculty and staff, parents of students and alumni. Paterson said he consulted with Assembly and Senate leaders before announcing the proposal, modeled after the New York State World Trade Center Memorial Scholarship established in 2002.
The governor was introduced by President John B. Simpson, who thanked the governor for the leadership, compassion and support he has shown in the aftermath of the crash and in proposing the scholarship fund. The response to the tragedy, Simpson added, demonstrated “the strength and resiliency of the community.”
Simpson read a statement from Nancy L. Zimpher, then SUNY chancellor-elect. Noting that “SUNY stands with the Western New York community in supporting all those impacted by that devastating event,” Zimpher, too, thanked Paterson for his leadership in creating the scholarship fund.
Also making comments were Erie County Executive Chris Collins and UB alumnus Scott Bylewski, JD ’98, MBA ’95 & BS ’95, supervisor of the Town of Clarence. Among the representatives of other higher education institutions in Western New York present for the announcement was President Jack Quinn, EdM ’78, of Erie Community College.
To watch a video of the press conference announcing the scholarship, click here.