As Comair Flight 5191 reached the end of Blue Grass Airport's shorter runway, it broke through an 8-foot chain-link fence, bounced off the ground and was almost airborne until it brushed a clump of trees, a witness said yesterday.
"He came bouncing across the pasture there. He just about had it off the ground when it clipped those trees," said Bill Giltner, who was hired to tend horses at the farm next to the airport.
Giltner said he was making coffee near the window of a small trailer that faced that runway on the horse farm owned by Nick Bentley, who leases the land to Wayne Murty. Giltner, 59, who had started there five days before, said he was stunned to see the CRJ-100 commuter plane struggling to get off the ground.
Its engines -- which are much bigger and louder than the small private planes that usually take off on that runway and pass over his head -- caught his attention.
"This sounded like a freight train coming right at you, I mean, full-blast," he said.
Giltner said he saw the plane first hit the metal fence at the perimeter of the airport, then he watched as its tail scraped the ground.
"He hit, and there were all kinds of sparks flying out of the back of that plane," Giltner said.
The plane bounced back into the air and over a smaller fence and the farm's lower horse pasture. It had begun going airborne when it clipped the top of a thicket of trees.
Giltner said that's when he left the trailer in time to see a "a ball of fire" followed by a large plume of smoke from behind the trees. The crash killed 47 passengers and two crew members. The lone survivor, first officer James Polehinke, remained in critical condition yesterday at University of Kentucky Hospital.
"There wasn't anything I could do about it," Giltner said. He rushed back to the trailer to call 9-1-1 and finish getting dressed.
Eyewitness accounts of disasters don't always get the details right, but Giltner's description matches some key evidence, including markings on the ground past the runway as well as the scrapes on the trees that were confirmed by National Transportation Safety Board investigators.
Investigators are still measuring and evaluating the impact marks on the trees to determine the plane's trajectory, NTSB member Debbie Hersman said at a briefing.
Giltner, a native of Salina, Kan., has been living in Kentucky since May, working around horses.
After the crash, he said, he rushed to wake Wayne Murty, who lives on the farm and oversees the care of the horses. Murty helped him open the farm's gates to give access to the first emergency vehicles, which arrived within minutes.
Giltner said he never saw the crash site. Still, the gravity of what had happened sunk in after a few hours.
"It didn't really hit me until noon," he said. "I could still smell the jet fuel burning."
Giltner said he quit his job at Bentley's farm yesterday because of the heavy workload.
Murty confirmed that Giltner worked there for five days until yesterday, but Murty declined to talk about the crash.