Hotel is epicenter of grief

August 28, 2006 

They came in groups and alone, faces stoic, steps quick. Then they left, often slow and unsteady, walking through the late August heat back to their cars and to lives forever changed.

The Crowne Plaza Campbell House in Lexington, often a place of celebration, became a place to mourn yesterday as it was designated a "care center" for the friends and relatives of the 49 people who died in the crash of Comair Flight 5191.

A woman in a bright-yellow dress, a fancy going-to-church hat on her head, needed the help of her two equally well-dressed friends as she made her way back to a blue van. A group of men in T-shirts and baggy shorts, cell phones to their ears, wandered around their parked cars not seeming to know what to do until, finally, they left in a caravan.

A woman in white, dark glasses covering her face, was helped to her car by a friend, whom she leaned against as she sobbed. For more than two hours, she had been inside, where counselors, airline representatives and city officials were gathered.

Along with those in need came those to help. A priest in a black suit with a white collar. Blue-skirted women from the Salvation Army. Red Cross workers in red vests. A smartly dressed couple carrying a thick gold-leaf Bible, well-worn at the spine.

At 2:59 p.m., a man in a blue shirt slowly lowered the American flag in front of the hotel. It was a sign of respect for the hundreds of grieving family members who are expected there over the next week.

"There have been a lot of prayers," said Gerry van der Meer, general manager of The Campbell House. "There have been an overwhelming number of people offering to help in any way."

Notified by the airline that there would be a need for some 200 rooms shortly after the crash, van der Meer said, his staff quickly set up conference rooms, with extra phone lines.

He said the airline has invited victims' extended families to stay at The Campbell House, so there could be three or four rooms needed for relatives of each of the 49 people who died on Comair Flight 5191. Delta, Comair's parent company, is picking up the cost of the hotel stay for the families and is pairing a Delta care volunteer to each family, van der Meer said.

Late in the afternoon, the traffic in the Campbell House parking lot had slowed. The line of television cameras that once stretched across the sidewalk was gone.

The sheriff's deputies had taken to sitting in their cruisers instead of standing at attention. At least one couple arrived to celebrate a happy occasion, carrying a silver large box tied with a white bow. But the flag still waved at half-staff.

Van der Meer said The Campbell House is expecting as many 600 friends and relatives; 50 had arrived by 8 p.m. Some were coming from as far away as Atlanta or St. Louis, and one was driving up from New Orleans, he said.

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