"It could've been yesterday," scene commander of 3407 site can still recall smells, sounds of crash

Staff Inspector Nigrelli
Nigrelli fire.jpg
Posted at 10:38 AM, Feb 11, 2019

BATAVIA, N.Y. (WKBW) — "I could see the tail fin sticking out. I could see the Continental logo," recalls NYSP Staff Inspector Steven Nigrelli.

Staff Inspector Nigrelli served as the scene commander of the Flight 3407 crash site. He was a captain at the time. A captain taking a night off, watching the story of the U.S. men's Olympic hockey team in the film Miracle with his kids.

"I was getting ready for bed and my phone rang. It was State Police in Clarence. I remember it was the desk person, Trooper John Manthey. Hey said 'Hey, we might have a plane crash. Probably a Cessna,' so I was like, I'm rolling. I ran to my bedroom, threw on my uniform and said bye to my wife," says Nigrelli. Throughout our conversation with Nigrelli, he recalls all memories without hesitation. He remembers all the steps he took, from getting dressed to the thoughts going through his mind as he drove to Clarence Center.

Nigrelli has a long history in law enforcement. He's seen a lot in his career, from going undercover in drug busts, to the manhunt for Ralph "Bucky" Phillips, to serving on the Bike Path Rapist task force. Nothing in his career measures up to what he has learned from the crash of 3407.

"It'll stick with me. Things stick with you. The visual, olfactory senses. The smells and then the sights. Ten years ago, it could've been yesterday," says Nigrelli. There's a photo of then-captain Nigrelli standing in front of the burning wreckage of Continental Flight 3407. He's on his way to a makeshift command post at the end of a pumper truck. He coordinated with several fire crews, some from as far away as Hamburg and multiple law enforcement agencies, both local and national. "I wish I had the vocabulary to describe it, but one word comes to mind. Chaos."

Nigrelli fire.jpg
New York State Police Staff Inspector Steven Nigrelli standing in front of the burning wreckage of Flight 3407.

Reporter Thuy Lan Nguyen asked him if there's anything he thinks could have been done better. "It's rare that anything is flawless, but nothing ever stood out that said 'wow, I wish we did something different.' I think law enforcement and first responders did our job and we did it well," responded Nigrelli.

He shares a bit of advice for other first responders in the aftermath of traumatic events. "There's things that occur that will traumatize you. There's ways of coping with it, these terrible terrible experiences. There's no way around it, but it's what we're trained to do. That's our job." Nigrelli says the thing that helped him most was talking about it.

Through teary eyes, he tells those who may have forgotten about 3407 this: "It shouldn't be in the back of their minds, the crash of 3407. For people who lived it and were here, it's the most tragic event, mass casualty here in our own backyard. It also signifies a community coming together for a common cause. This is the hallmark of Western New York, both the tragedy on one end and a community coming together." He remembers the scene itself, with children coming every few hours, delivering freshly baked cookies for firefighters and police officers. Local restaurants delivered food to the scene, making sure the men and women working around the clock for nearly a week were fed.

Ten years later, Nigrelli says this tragedy has created incredible relationships for him. He's made friends with the family members of those who died in the crash and with those family members who continue to rally for safety changes in the flight industry. "Just so happens on this plane were a bunch of people who have amazing family members. Steely determination. They will not go away. Because of this tragedy, they forged a bond. They're representative of what our families would do in Western New York. We don't let things go away. We don't give up."

Join 7 Eyewitness News in remembering the lives lost in the crash of Flight 3407. Read more about their families' fight for safer skies in the decade since.