'Makeover' asked to rebuild crash home

February 19, 2009 10:53:40 AM PST
Nearly 60,000 Facebook users have petitioned ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" to rebuild the Buffalo home that was ravaged in the crash of Continental Airline's flight 3407. "Our biggest goal in creating this group was to provide an outlet of support, where everyone could come together to show how much they care," said Jayne O'Connor, 17, who created the group with her sister, Emma, 15, of Amherst. N.Y.

Their parents came up with the television idea, but it was the sisters who suggested Facebook as the most effective way to reach people. They created the Web page called "Let's get Extreme Makeover to Build the Wielinski Family a New Home."

The home of Douglas Wielinski, 61, was struck by a commuter airliner Feb. 12, taking his life and almost that of his wife and one of their four daughters. Karen Wielinski, 57, was at home at the time with the couple's 22-year-old daughter, Jill, but both survived.

The crash took the lives of 49 people who were on the plane.

The home was nearly burned to the ground, and what was left standing endured massive smoke and fire damage. Mother and daughter have been treated for minor burns.

As of Wednesday, the Facebook group had 58,305 members, more than twice as many as another sympathy site, "In Memory of the Victims of Continental Airlines Flight 3407," which had 22,000 members.

'Extreme Makeover' Considers Case

"Extreme Makeover" executive producer Anthony Dominici said the petition was under review, "but we do not comment on casting."

The show, currently in its fifth season, selects "one very rundown house, a deserving family, several opinionated designers" to do a complete renovation.

Regardless of whether it gets the family the help of "Extreme Makeover," the effort illustrates the new power of social networking to galvanize people to help others. With the click of a mouse, users can recommend or join causes promoted by their friends.

"It's not surprising that people are turning to social networking for fundraising," said John Grohol, a Massachusetts online psychologist who runs psychecentral.com.

"Facebook has 150 million users, and has become a significant place for the everyday activities that we engage in within our communities," he told ABCNews.com. "Someone's house burns down -- a church puts together a fundraiser for clothing or food to help a family get back on its feet again." Facebook Ups Ante on Charity

"Social networking puts that whole concept to another level," Grohol said. "Instead of 100 people in a local community, there are tens of thousands of people to chip in for any kind of disaster or emergency."

Tracy Dedecker of Ontario, Canada, started the group "Liam Wants to Meet Ellen DeGeneres" to help an 8-year-old boy with leukemia. In nine days, the group had more than 300,000 members.

"There are people all over the world joining every second," she told ABCNews.com. "Facebook is so great and so inspirational when we all get together for a great cause. This group has given me hope for the generous and kind people that we still have in this world."

Dedecker's son is 6 and keeps close tabs on the numbers.

"Every day, he comes home from school and asks me how many people have joined the group and if that is enough for Liam to meet Ellen," Dedecker said. "One of these days I would like to tell him, yes."

The Facebook group dedicated to the Wielinski family is also keeping abreast of the Buffalo crash, updating the site with news and commentary. Those who have joined say they were touched by the tragedy.

Crash Tragedy Is 'Mind-Boggling'

"I live right across the border in Niagara Falls, Canada, and when I heard of this plane crash, my heart dropped and my body filled with sadness for the families who lost loved ones on the plane," wrote Sharlene Wedlake. "What a horrific event to happen, and for the family who lost a home. It's just mind-boggling."

This week it was revealed that pilot error may have caused the plane to veer off course and crash into the Clarence Center home, about 6 miles outside Buffalo. The airliner was en route from Newark, N.J., to Buffalo Niagara International Airport when it went down about 10:20 p.m.

All 49 onboard were killed, as well as Wielinski's husband, a marketing manager at Luvata Buffalo and a Vietnam War veteran. Karen Wielinski was watching television when she heard a plane making an unusually loud noise. Her husband had just left the family room to work in the dining room.

"I thought to myself, if that's a plane, it's going to hit something," she told Buffalo radio station WBEN. "When the ceiling first fell down ... I think the first thing I said to myself was 'Is this real? Is this reality or am I dreaming something?'"

Family Trapped in Buffalo Home

"And next thing I knew, the ceiling was on me," said Wielinski, who was trapped in the house. Firefighters blamed a natural gas leak for the blaze's persistence. Miraculously, she and her daughter escaped, running up the street to look for neighbors.

The O'Connor sisters, who both attend Buffalo Academy of Sacred Heart, said that group members have offered to do more than just sign a petition to have "Extreme Makeover" consider helping the family.

"I think the biggest thing that is really touching is that people have been saying that even if the Wielinskis don't get on the show, they are donating services, a construction site or landscaping to build a house for them," Emma O'Connor said.

Facebook 'Makes People More Philanthropic'

Erica Perry, a 24-year-old from Rochester, N.Y., who joined the group, believes social networking "makes people more philanthropic."

"They see their friends join groups and get interested," she told ABCNews.com. "I learn about events and stories that aren't always on the news in my area but are important to out-of-town friends and family."

Perry, who is a graduate student in packaging engineering, is also a member of the Soldiers Angels, a Virginia Tech memorial group, as well as other groups that support cancer research and a police officer who had been shot. "It seems they are pretty effective, based on just the numbers of people who join and show support in their own ways," she said. "A few causes even have options to donate money, which I haven't done yet, but friends have."

But another member of the group, Jason J. Deuro of Buffalo, worried about exploitation.

The 35-year-old customer service manager joined when five friends sent him a link.

He signed the petition so he could "read the group's reasonings" and air his own opinion.

"It would make me sick to see someone on TV present this family with a new Kenmore oven or stove and see the sales from those products increase at the expense of a family in my community," he told ABCNews.com.

"Social networking has increased the size of the soapbox that people can shout from," Deuro said. "I felt it was my responsibility to shout back."

"I consider this show to be one big advertisement that pulls on heartstrings to sell products," he said.

"I understand that we all live in the city of good neighbors and we want to help," Deuro said. "There has to be a better way than letting a TV station and its sponsors use this tragedy to their advantage."

Facebook Plea to 'Extreme Makeover'

Producers at "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" offered condolences but have made no commitment to rebuild the Wielinski's home.

"We, like the rest of America, are deeply saddened by the tragic plane crash in Buffalo, N.Y., and our hearts go out to all the families who have been affected," Dominici told ABCNews.com.

"We truly appreciate the effort involved and are always thrilled to see a community coming together to help each other," he said.

But the O'Connor sisters say the point of the group is to raise awareness and compassion more than to get the family a free house.

The group has drawn members from as far away as Arizona, and many who say, "I know someone who was on the plane and I support the idea," Jayne O'Connor said. "It's helping them move through this.

"If they don't get a home makeover," she said, "knowing that they have support and help, knowing people are there for them, that's enough for us."

Join "Let's Get Extreme Makeover to Build the Wielinski Family a New Home.""

Visit "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."