Airport releases emergency dispatch tapes

HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITERDecember 9, 2006 

Sirens wail and breathless emergency workers try feverishly to find and help victims of downed Comair Flight 5191 on dramatic emergency dispatch communications released by Blue Grass Airport yesterday.

Airport emergency workers saw flames and smelled smoke, but getting to the scene of the Aug. 27 crash that killed 49 people was difficult, the recordings indicate.

"I am unable to find the fuselage. The weeds back here are over the top of my head," one airport emergency worker says on the recording.

From another emergency worker a short time later: "Radio, I've located the main body of fire, Metro's on scene dragging people ...." He's interrupted by an explosion, then resumes. "Whoa ... they're dragging people out now."

A little while later he says, "We're at the plane, uhh ... we're dragging people out right now."

From the first rescue worker: "We have one ... one pilot we've rescued from the fuselage; he's breathing at this time."

There's more talk among rescue workers and the airport emergency dispatcher and the sounds of firefighting equipment attacking the blaze.

"Dispatch, we've only got one victim. Make sure we have a buggy (ambulance) here. We're going to take him to Versailles. We're trying to put him in the truck," the first rescue worker says.

The second emergency worker to the dispatcher: "Contact Lexington. Advise them I've got the first officer. He's alive. We're putting him in my vehicle and bringing him to the road."

A few moments later, he says: "I'm en route to UK ... disregard EC (ambulance). I'm en route to UK."

The first officer, James Polehinke, was the only person to survive the Sunday morning crash, which killed 49 others. Polehinke was pulled from the wreckage by two airport officers and a Lexington police officer. He suffered massive injuries and spent weeks in the University of Kentucky Hospital before being moved to Cardinal Hill for rehabilitation.

Flight 5191 crashed on farm land next to the airport after taking off from the wrong runway, the airport's shorter general aviation runway.

In the recordings, the airport dispatcher is heard questioning an air traffic controller repeatedly about the runway the plane took.

"Off the approach end of runway 8?" the dispatcher asked, repeating what the controller had just told him. (The dispatcher and controller were referring to Runway 8-26, which is too short for commercial planes. Commercial planes use the airport's longer runway, 4-22.)

"Yeah," the controller said.

"Runway 8?" the dispatcher asked again.

"Off the approach in runway 8. He was taking off 22," the controller said.

"OK the approach end of runway 8," the dispatcher said.

The recordings released by the airport are a "compilation of multiple radio and telephone transmissions," airport spokeswoman Amy Caudill said. The recordings, which document the first minutes after the crash, are the airport's emergency response recordings.

Airport officials said that the airport had received approval from federal officials this week to release the dispatch recordings. Recordings from Lexington police and fire dispatch were released earlier.

Recordings pertaining to the crash from the air traffic control tower at Blue Grass Airport have not been released by the Federal Aviation Administration, nor have the cockpit recordings from the plane been released by the National Transportation Safety Board, which continues to investigate the accident.

It took some time for emergency workers to learn just how many people were on board the plane, the airport dispatch recordings indicate. At one point the dispatcher is heard telling someone that a Comair representative told him there was no hazardous cargo on the plane.

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