The first responders who came from the fire department and the emergency rescue had a grisly scene Saturday, July 19, when they responded to a plane crash at the Snowslip Farm on River Road.
Lesley Trevor owns the farm where the Mooney aircraft crashed, killing pilot Fred Y. Kafka, 63, of Vienna, West Virginia, his daughter Kathleen, 24, and Reed Phillips, 25, of Midland, Michigan, the later students at Clarkson University in Potsdam.
"They had to put out this raging fire," Trevor said. "We knew that there were people in the plane, but we didn't know there were three people. From that point right on through the whole day when they were waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Traffic Safety Board to come, there was nothing but the most incredible diligence, commitment and respect for the site.
"I was very impressed by how the entire operation was conducted. There are so many elements you can't control in such situations. There were lots of people trying to get access to the plane. There were reasons for security. For the future investigation, they had to secure the site, and they did it with grace. They were polite but very firm on how they handled people. The state police were there. I don't know how many state police were on the road. They were well organized and respectful of the community and of the crash site.
"When the National Traffic Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration representatives arrived, again it was amazing the care and the time they took to just go over every piece of evidence, every piece of what possibly happened to help them recreate the crash and try to solve the problem. The NTSB investigator went through everything telling me, and others, that they were bringing in people who built the engine as the plane company no longer exists and they were having forensics come in. They had so many different teams there coordinating all aspects of what was going on because what propels them in a situation like this is the answers they get will help people and help avoid future crashes like this. It was clear that this is what keeps them going.
"The reason we were having the conversations with them is because they were interviewing us as we were the first on the scene. They wanted to know if we could help recreate what happened. Then at one point Paul Cox, the FAA representative, was really grief counseling me because I think he knew there were young people on the plane. I think he was preparing me for the news. I thought it was incredibly sensitive of him to be so concerned.
"He immediately expressed the sense of community we have here. He could get that feeling just through interacting with people. He expressed his respect for the first responders and what they had done. Then he gave me a personal story about an investigation of a crash that had involved a family with young children that had really affected him. I think he gave me the story to help me try to see a way through this as that was when I learned there were two young people my children's age on the plane. It has been really difficult for me.
"At the end of his story, he had some very specific requests. He asked me to make the site available to the family members if they want to come, which I thought was incredibly sensitive of him. His story included the description of a memorial service that the community did for this family. He was subtly encouraging us to come together as a community to help the first responders, help the families, help the needs of our neighbors, have counseling, and provide help through doing a service of some sort, and we will.
"We had this interview after he had finished his work, and my husband John had used our excavator to help them lift up parts of the plane and move it out. I thought his story and his request was a wonderful closure and a way for me to see the human side of what first responders, crash investigators, forensic teams have to go through. It was wonderful.
"They took the bodies out in the night, which made it easier for us. I couldn't sleep at all Saturday night. I didn't know who they were, but I knew they were still in the field, and it was very hard. And then I couldn't sleep last night because I knew who it was.
"There were two young people with me who witnessed what was going on, my daughter Emily who is 22 and had to rescue four horses trapped and terrified horses who were behind the flames, and our stable hand who is 17 and watched the cockpit burn. He was the one who called 911. The next day they came to me and said, 'We should have done more. We should have been there with fire extinguishers.'
"I took them over to the NTSB representative and Mr. Cox and explained to them that this was a feeling they were having. They said, 'First of all your fire extinguishers could never have put out the fire. Did you see the pictures? The fire was really high. Your fire extinguishers could never have had any effect. In fact, there could have been a blowback. You could have been seriously injured and there could have been second explosion. There was nothing you as a 17-year old or you as a 22 year-old could have done.'
"There are things we can do," I said to Lesley. "That is why I said on Saturday it is fortunate that the crash happened here and not back deep in the woods so the rescue workers could get here quickly, so we can provide the families and others impacted by this an opportunity of closure, and so we can give something back to these first responders to help them move through this process just as we are going to have to help our own horses move through this process. Snowslip is a healing place. We will help this community heal. We will help these rescue workers heal. We will help the family heal."
"Yes, we are a healing place and we are willing to host a service here," said Trevor. "I am acutely aware that what we said on Saturday about what we witnessed was probably read by the families and I meant no disrespect. We were overwhelmed. I specifically did not give any recorded interviews. I am now thinking back about some of those articles as a mother who may have been reading it. I just want to be incredibly sensitive and respectful to the families, to the survivors, and to the three people who lost their lives because there is a mother out there, there is a father out there reading what we say."
Earlier on Saturday, as I stood by the roadside, I watched a solitary monarch butterfly flutter alongside the row of emergency vehicles slowly moving toward the downed plane and those standing heavily alongside as if it was some gentle angel bringing peace to come.