A group of five Irish Americans returning from the All-Ireland dance championships in Killarney, Co. Kerry had a very narrow escape after they switched at the last moment from the fatal Continental Airlines Flight 3407 which crashed outside Buffalo on February 12.
The five narrowly escaped death by catching an earlier flight from Newark after returning from Ireland earlier that day.
One of the travelers, Mary Heneghan, owner of the Tara Gift Shoppe in Buffalo and chairwoman of the Buffalo Irish Center, said it is "simply a miracle," that all five women are alive.
Heneghan, whose father was a Co. Clare immigrant and whose husband Thomas is from Co. Mayo, said that she is a firm believer in "if it's not your time you're not going" but, she said to have as many things go right for her and her traveling companions literally saved their lives.
Heneghan, 62, her daughter Mary-Kay Heneghan, 42, owner and principal dancing teacher of Rince Na Tiarna School of Irish Dance in Buffalo, two Irish dancing students, Kevinah Dargan, 14 and Fiona Dargan, 12, and their mother Tracy Dargan were all booked onto Flight 3407, which was operated by Colgan Air, that crashed in Clarence Center, Buffalo on Thursday evening, February 12, killing everyone on board.
The girls were returning from the All-Ireland dance championships that took place in Killarney during the previous few days. Kevinah and Fiona both participated in the competitions.
The Buffalo group departed Shannon Airport at 9 a.m. on Thursday morning Irish time on a Continental flight, and arrived at Newark Airport about an hour before their scheduled landing time, giving the women plenty of time before their connecting flight to Buffalo.
"The flight arrived in Newark 45 minutes to an hour early which I thought was very strange because I've never heard of a flight getting in early," said Heneghan.
Heneghan, who walks with a cane, said, "I'm limited and I take a long time to get around the airport so we had booked that late flight."
After arriving earlier than expected, the group had approximately nine hours to kill before their 7:10 p.m. Continental flight was due to leave Newark for Buffalo.
Realizing it was going to be a long wait, Mary Kay asked a Continental service representative if they could get on one of the three earlier flights home. However, when the representative told Heneghan that there would be a $50 cost per person, they decided to wait around.
"As $50 each is a lot of money to pay out for a mother with two daughters just to save a few hours, we decided to sit in the lounge area," explained Heneghan.
However, a short time had passed when it was announced that Flight 3407 would be delayed because of inclement weather.
Due to work commitments on Friday morning, the adults made the decision to pay the money this time and get on next the flight, fearing they would be stuck in Newark overnight. It was agreed, however, if there were not enough seats for the five of them that Tracy would go ahead with her two daughters, and the Heneghans would wait for their scheduled flight.
When Mary-Kay approached the desk for a second time and asked was there any possibility if the five of them could get on the earlier flight she was told she was in luck. There were five seats available.
At the time it was good news, but later that evening it transpired to be news that literally saved their lives. "We were fortunate that they had five seats available," said Heneghan. "Everything seemed to play in our favor not to be on that flight," she said with heaviness in her voice.
Due to the amount of flights being cancelled, Continental waved the $50 fee and allowed them all to board the 2:40 p.m. flight to Buffalo, which was an hour delayed taking off because of bad weather.
Although the aircraft that they boarded was considerably larger than the 3407 plane that crashed later that night, Heneghan said the takeoff was horrendous.
"The pilot announced that there was 70 mile an hour winds. It was a very rough takeoff but he handled it beautifully. When we landed in Buffalo it was a textbook landing, very smooth," remembers Heneghan.
After disembarking safely and getting a taxi home that evening, Heneghan got an early night's sleep. It wasn't until her phone rang at 5 a.m. the next morning that she realized that Flight 3407 had crashed, leaving no survivors.
Catching an earlier flight had spared their lives.
Irish dance teachers in Ireland, aware of the girls' flight arrangements and seeing the crash on the news in Ireland, called Mary-Kay straight away to see if they were okay.
"It still follows me now," said Heneghan sadly. "This aura of sadness that such minor decisions impacted our lives, and unfortunately that tragedy spread to everybody on that flight."
Heneghan said her life has changed dramatically since the crash. "Little things that I would find annoying don't bother me anymore," she said. "I'm sure I've used all my luck for my entire life but that's okay. I don't mind," she said.
Heneghan said all her friends at the Buffalo Irish Center and the Irish community in Buffalo are so thrilled that the five ladies had their lives saved, but yet they are all very saddened for the loss.
Not allowing a fear of flying to overcome her, Mary-Kay, as scheduled, flew to Phoenix just five days after the crash.
"To have a plane come in early and to have five seats available for us all to be able to go on that earlier flight is just incredible, a miracle," she said.