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Families see hope, peace in new memorial to Flight 5191

families of the victims see hope and peace in memorial sculpture

bestep@herald-leader.com, lblackford@herald-leader.comAugust 28, 2011 

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

Five years, four hours and a few minutes after Comair Flight 5191 went down in Lexington, a soaring memorial to the 49 people killed in the crash took wing with an emotional dedication.

Many in the crowd at the Arboretum wiped away tears when four people removed the cover in front of the sculpture of 49 silver birds swooping upward in a flock, but the moment also brought spontaneous applause.

It was the first time family members of those killed in the crash had seen the memorial.

"Our 5191 family, forged from the tragedy five years ago, can now can say that it has a touchstone, a place to call our own, that we can come to, to reflect, or come to and rejoice," said Matthew Snoddy of Lexington, whose father, Tim Snoddy, died in the crash.

"If a memorial can make you appreciate life, this is that memorial," Snoddy said. "If a memorial can help you find peace, this is that memorial."

The sculpture is mounted on a polished base in a flower garden at the University of Kentucky Arboretum. The names of those killed in the crash are etched in the base, and family members provided mementos to place inside the birds.

More than 600 people attended the dedication ceremony Saturday. That included about 425 family and friends of those who died in the crash.

Survivors of all 49 people who died — 47 passengers, one pilot and one flight attendant — were invited to the dedication, but some couldn't attend, said Kim Livesay, an official with Hospice of the Bluegrass.

Forty families were represented at the dedication, Livesay said.

Douwe Blumberg, the sculptor who created the memorial, was excited to see it finally unveiled.

"The whole ceremony was beautifully done," he said. "It was so emotional. It's very cool to see this in its final shape, not covered with stuff and looking like a work zone."

The crash happened when the pilots of Flight 5191 tried to take off on the wrong runway at Blue Grass Airport at 6 a.m. on Aug. 27, 2006.

The runway was too short. The plane never got fully airborne, clipping a fence at the end of the runway and crashing in a farm field, then bursting into flames.

Only one person on board, co-pilot James Polehinke, survived, albeit with severe injuries. Polehinke did not attend Saturday's ceremony.

Speakers at the dedication, as well as many family members, recalled how the community rallied around those who lost loved ones in the crash.

"In those late days of August five years ago, grieving families and friends were embraced by a grieving city, but it was a giving and a caring and a generous city as well," Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said in his speech.

Gray read part of a letter that Deborah Hersman, who investigated the crash for the National Transportation Safety Board, sent to the mayor's office years ago.

Hersman mentioned the old saying about time healing wounds, but said that in Lexington in the days and weeks after the crash, "I discovered that the strength to move forward comes not so much from time, as it does from one another."

Gray said the dedication was an occasion to commemorate and consecrate, to embrace memory and the heartache that can go with it.

But he said, "We're here, too, to embrace the human spirit, a hopeful spirit, a spirit that triumphs even in times of adversity."

Gov. Steve Beshear said that when he saw the memorial, he was reminded "of the effect of the lives of those 49 souls and how those lives have affected all of us in so many positive ways."

Hersman, who now chairs the NTSB, also spoke at Saturday's dedication, praising the grace of those who lost loved ones and the compassion of the community.

"I know through my conversations with many who are here today that this memorial is not just about what was lost five years ago on that August morning, but it's about how much the 49 family members and friends gave to each of you and to the world," Hersman said.

Hersman also said that the Federal Aviation Administration has acted on a number of safety recommendations the NTSB made as a result of the crash.

"Aviation is now safer because of what happened here five years ago," she said.

Lois Turner, whose husband Larry Turner, a UK associate dean, died in the crash, said the memorial can be a place of refuge not just for those who lost family members in the crash.

"The sculpture is so very comforting, hopefully not just for the families of Flight 5191, but it will also be here at this special place for years, for anyone who comes this way in need of comfort and hope," Turner said.

Family members at the dedication said they've passed a lot of milestones the last five years — weddings and births, holidays and Little League games.

They've leaned on family, friends and faith to heal.

"Life has gone on — very different than before the crash. Perhaps a little more reflective, perhaps a little more precious than before," Turner said.

Sue Byrd, whose son Brian Byrd died in the crash, said she and others have learned how quickly loved ones can be gone. When she was asked to speak at the dedication, she decided on some special advice, Byrd said.

"Always speak from your heart to the people that you love. Don't put off until tomorrow sharing your feelings with them," Byrd said. "Live your life that if tomorrow never came, you would have no regrets."

The families are at different stages in their journey, but the sculpture can now become part of the healing process, family members said.

"I am happy that there is a place that we can come back to," said Anita Threet, whose husband, Greg, died in the crash. "I think it's just another amazing thing this community has done."

The couple had three children, including a daughter who was just seven weeks old when the crash happened. The statue will help as a link to their father, said Threet. Threet, who now lives in Cincinnati and recently remarried, said the sculpture is "spectacular."

Marsha Dawson, whose husband Fenton died in the crash, said the sculpture inspires hope.

"I felt very much at peace when I saw the sculpture," Dawson said. "It was very uplifting. You can just feel it reaching to the sky."

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