Sole survivor of Flight 5191 won't attend memorial service

lblackford@herald-leader.comAugust 25, 2011 

  • Unfinished Journeys: Flight 5191 Remembered
    A multimedia review of the Herald-Leader's coverage of the crash of Comair Flight 5191. Originally published a week after the August 27, 2006 crash. Produced by David Stephenson. Victims' photos start at 3:06.

  • A behind-the-scenes look at the making and installation of the Flight 5191 memorial sculpture. Video by chief photographer Charles Bertram.

The sole survivor of Comair Flight 5191 won't be attending an event on Saturday to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the plane crash, according to his mother.

Honey Jackson said in a phone interview that her son, co-pilot James Polehinke, would not be in Lexington for the unveiling of a memorial sculpture in honor of the 49 people who died in the crash.

"He'll never be right, ever," she said. "Nothing has changed, but that's all I can say."

One of Polehinke's attorneys, William E. Johnson of Frankfort, said Polehinke is doing well.

"He's worked hard to rehabilitate himself mentally and physically," said Johnson, who estimated he'd talked to Polehinke about six months ago.

Johnson said Polehinke spends most of his time in a wheelchair, although he does walk sometimes with the aid of walking device.

"He's very strong from the waist up," Johnson said.

Another of Polehinke's attorneys, Bruce Brandon of Greensboro, N.C., did not return numerous calls seeking comment.

Flight 5191 crashed after trying to take off from the wrong runway at Blue Grass Airport on Aug. 27, 2006. The National Transportation Safety Board cited the pilots' failure to notice clues they were on the wrong runway as the primary cause of the accident.

The plane's captain, Jeffrey Clay, was killed.

Polehinke suffered a broken spine, numerous other broken bones and some brain damage. His left leg was amputated.

Polehinke and the families of Clay and flight attendant Kelly Heyer filed suit against the Federal Aviation Administration because only one air traffic controller was on duty at the time of the crash. There were supposed to be two controllers, and the controller who was working had gotten only two hours of sleep between shifts.

The controller was doing administrative work and did not see the plane take off, although he was not required to do so.

The lawsuits were settled favorably, Johnson said.

Polehinke was dismissed as a party in the families' settlements with Comair.

Polehinke lives just outside Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and has been spending time counseling amputees at the Veterans Administration Hospital there, Johnson said.

"It's good therapy for him and evidently for other people, too," he said.

Polehinke has flown again, and even went skydiving with an aide, Johnson said.

Polehinke has refused interview requests because "he's always been very loyal to Comair, and he feels the accident was the fault of the FAA in not giving them proper information that morning," Johnson said.

Johnson said Polehinke's mental concentration tends to flag after about 30 minutes of conversation.

"He's a delightful person. I found him a pleasure to represent and to know," Johnson said. "He has fought the fight for life."

Organizers of Saturday's memorial event said they had not received a reply from Amy Clay, the widow of captain Jeffrey Clay, about whether she would attend the ceremony on Saturday.