When Comair flight 5191 crashed on takeoff from Blue Grass Airport 10 years ago this week, it left a gaping hole in Lexington’s heart.
But the 49 people who perished that Sunday morning — Aug. 27, 2006 — also left legacies and lessons that continue to shape this community and beyond.
Here are two of them:
Passion for service
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Pat Smith, 58, was a computer engineer who helped start what is now Versa Tech Automation LLC. But he had two passions: his family and helping people less fortunate.
After Smith and his wife, Jean, sold their company in 1999, they made service their second career and enlisted their son, daughter and friends whenever they could.
Working with Christ the King Catholic Church and Habitat for Humanity, Smith led a disaster relief project in Sri Lanka, built a church, library and more in Ghana and replaced storm-damaged homes in India and Mississippi. He was a member of Habitat’s international board and was on his way to a build project when he died.
“We were quick to jump in and participate in whatever crazy idea he had,” daughter Jennifer Combs said. “But, since then, it has been daunting without him there to lead us.”
Maybe so, but you wouldn’t know it by their accomplishments.
Soon after the crash, Habitat for Humanity’s Lexington organization created a Pat Smith Endowment Fund. It reached its $1 million goal two years ago and so far has helped build or renovate 10 houses in Lexington for low-income families.
Both of the Smiths’ children organized an event to raise that money. Combs started the Shamrock Shuffle 3k race. Brian Smith created what is now the Liberty Mutual Invitational golf tournament.
After managing those events for several years, they turned them over to Habitat. The family has stayed involved in that organization, participating in several builds. Combs’ husband, Steve, has been on the Lexington board for a decade.
The family also has stayed involved in Pat Smith’s mission work in the West African country of Ghana. After hearing a group of nuns speak at their church nearly 20 years ago, Pat and Jean Smith went to Ghana for a month to do what they could.
In one village where they worked, Combs said, “They noticed there was no Catholic church. It had been in such disrepair that they had to tear it down.”
A rebuilding effort was underway, but the Smiths were told it could take 30 years because the village was so poor. So they returned to Lexington and raised $42,000 through Christ the King Church and School. The church was finished two years later.
Before Pat Smith’s death, the family made 15 trips to Ghana, where they helped build a library, a bread oven and a wood-working co-op. Village elders in Asasan gave Pat Smith the title “sub-chief for development” and, after his death, a monument was built to his memory. The inscription reads: “A U.S. volunteer who lived and died for this community.”
Since then, Combs, 45, and her brother, 43, have each made two trips to Ghana to help build schools. Last year, they brought their oldest children with them: Combs’ son, Wyatt, and Smith’s son, Jackson, both now freshmen at Lexington Catholic High School. Next year, they plan to return with Smith’s daughter, Cassidy, and Combs’ son Lincoln as well as the older boys.
“We try to teach them what Dad taught us about giving back,” Combs said. “After last summer, that’s what Wyatt talks about. He wants to go travel and do service for others. It left such an impact on them.”
Seize the day
Leslie Morris was a prominent Lexington attorney beginning to ease into retirement. His children were grown and he and their step-mother, Kaye Craig Morris, were on their way to an Alaska vacation the morning Comair 5191 crashed.
“You grow up really fast in a lot of ways,” said Wyn Morris, his son. “You’ve been an adult, but you’re a different sort of adult all of a sudden. And you just kind of think, all right, this ain’t gonna go on forever. You’ve just got to get out there and take some chances.”
Morris was working as sales manager for the University Press of Kentucky, but his father’s death rekindled an old dream of opening his own bookstore. When his mother died eight months later of lung cancer, he realized it was now or never.
“I liked that job, but some of my best years had been at Joseph-Beth in its heyday,” he said. “I just thought, OK, let’s roll the dice. Let’s give this a try.”
As Morris, 53, and his sister, Marion Queen, settled their father’s estate, he and his wife, Vicki Sword, ended up with his Bell Court house, which needed renovation. Morris began spending his spare time there alone, tearing out walls and cabinets and making plans for what would become The Morris Book Shop.
“There was this idea of let’s keep as insanely busy as possible to keep your mind off things,” Morris said. “But it gave me direction. It was a therapy of sorts.”
First on Southland Drive and later on East High Street in Chevy Chase, The Morris Book Shop became a popular Lexington institution focused on Kentucky authors. But running a profitable bookstore in the age of Amazon and Walmart has been a challenge. Last month, Morris announced he would either sell or close the store.
It seems unlikely the store will close. Morris said he is in talks with four different groups interested in buying it. So many people see its cultural value.
“I don’t have any regrets that it wasn’t financially successful, because I think it was successful in every other way,” he said.
Morris said he is reminded of his father every day. Max, 19, the older of his two sons, has grown up to be remarkably like him. Their mannerisms and humor are the same. Leslie Morris was a huge movie buff. Max is studying film at DePaul University in Chicago. “They would have adored each other now,” he said.
Morris hasn’t decided what he will do after the bookstore sells. He and his family will travel more. He will ride his two motorcycles, go up in hot air balloons and soar down zip lines.
“It’s not like I’ve become some sort of crazy daredevil,” Morris said. “But there is this tendency to try new stuff and see new things, especially with family.”
Morris said he is no longer afraid to take chances, because he knows that life is fleeting. Comair 5191 taught him that.
Memorial Service Saturday
What: The community is invited to a memorial service marking the 10th anniversary of the crash of Comair flight 5191. Speakers will include local family members, local religious and political leaders and Deborah Hersman, former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.
When: 10 a.m. Aug. 27
Where: The 5191 memorial at the University of Kentucky Arboretum on Alumni Drive. Bring your own lawn chairs.
Parking: Blue Lot of Commonwealth Stadium. A Lextran shuttle will run to the Arboretum.