Tom Eblen: 5191 memorial all about community, healing

tragedy proved lexington hasn't outgrown its heart

Herald-Leader ColumnistAugust 28, 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.

It is often said that Lexington is not a city, but a big small town.

The saying was never more true than on that terrible Sunday — Aug. 27, 2006 — when Comair Flight 5191 crashed on takeoff from Blue Grass Airport an hour before sunrise.

Forty-nine people, almost all of them Central Kentuckians, lost their lives in an instant. The news rippled across the community as if a rock had been thrown in a still pond. Everyone, it seemed, knew someone on that jet, or they knew someone who knew someone.

Suddenly, horrific headlines and news videos were no longer an abstraction. This was not just another tragedy happening somewhere else to strangers. The wreckage lay just across Versailles Road from Keeneland. People throughout the Bluegrass felt as if their hearts had suddenly stopped beating.

Time does not heal all wounds, as speakers reminded those who gathered Saturday at the University of Kentucky Arboretum to dedicate a memorial to those who died aboard Flight 5191. But time, and an outpouring of community compassion and support, has helped the healing process begin.

The memorial itself is beautiful: a cluster of 49 silver birds taking flight from a black stone pedestal, around which is engraved the name of each person who died. The sculpture stands surrounded by a rose garden, on a rise above a grassy meadow.

"If a memorial can help you find peace, this is that memorial," said Matthew Snoddy, whose father, Tim Snoddy, died in the crash.

The ceremony was a moving tribute to those who were lost, and recognition for the many Kentuckians who have helped make a memorial to them possible.

But it also was a celebration of community, and a reminder of shared loss still deeply felt. "Jane and I lost friends that day, as so many others did," Gov. Steve Beshear said as he began his remarks.

Mayor Jim Gray read a letter sent to city officials after the tragedy by Deborah Hersman, the crash investigator and now chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. She wrote that she had never seen a community rally behind crash victims' families as much as Lexington has. Hersman, whose husband's family is from Lexington, repeated similar comments when it was her turn to speak.

"People ministered to us, comforted us and slowly but surely healing began," said Lois Turner, the widow of crash victim Larry Turner.

The family members, who sat in white chairs beneath a huge tent, were surrounded Saturday by dozens of people from the community, who either stood or brought their own lawn chairs for the memorial service. There were individuals and couples, parents with small children and uniformed members of a Boy Scout troop.

Standing quietly in the back of the crowd were new UK President Eli Capilouto and his wife, Mary Lynne, who said the gathering helped give them a sense of the town they moved to barely two months ago.

"This reminds a community of how much we mean to one another," he said.

Vice Mayor Linda Gorton, who like other members of the public brought her own lawn chair to the memorial service, said she thinks Lexingtonians have learned something about themselves and each other in the five years since that terrible Sunday morning.

"When we have an emergency happen, people really respond," Gorton said. "Even though we have nearly 300,000 people here, we really have the heart of a small town. It's beautiful."

Reach Tom Eblen at teblen@herald-leader.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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