The morning of August 27, 2006, was like any other summer morning in Lexington.
At a few minutes before 6 a.m., 46 passengers, two pilots, a flight attendant, and a pilot for another airline catching a ride boarded Comair Flight 5191, bound for Atlanta.
Fifteen minutes after boarding, the plane taxied across Blue Grass Airport, lined up and began its takeoff roll. Less than a minute later, it would be a twisted wreck at the end of Runway 26, engulfed in flames, having never taken flight.
Forty-nine of the 50 souls on board perished. This story by Matthew Snoddy describes what that day was like for one family who had a loved one onboard.
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The call came about 10:30 a.m.
Wendy, my wife, and I were camped out on the couch in front of the TV. It was a typical Sunday morning. Our two kids, Charlie and Alice, had eaten a late breakfast, and we were all still lazing around the house in our comfy clothes. Our plan for the day wasn’t anything special, just a day at home with the kids and our new dog, a three-month-old Italian Greyhound named Izzy.
The phone rang, and on the caller ID I saw the name of Joyce, an attorney who had been a friend for years. She shared office space with my father, a CPA and forensic accountant, in an office park on Darby Creek Road. I used the basement office space for my own computer company. We coexisted peacefully, the CPA, the lawyer, and the IT consultant.
Having been the “computer guy” for years, I was used to unusual calls at odd hours. I groaned a little as I reached for the phone, expecting the call to be something computer-related, but when I glanced at the screen with the name, I realized it was very unusual to get a call from Joyce on a Sunday morning.
I cheerily answered, “Hey, Joyce.”
“… your dad was on the plane,” Joyce said with a shaky voice.
I immediately got chills across my arms and up the back of my neck.
“What plane?” I asked.
“Turn on the news,” she said, as she began sobbing.
Our TV had been on all morning, but on a cable movie channel. I stood up, inches away from the TV, and quickly pawed for the remote and switched to a local station. Immediately I saw video of smoking aircraft wreckage in a copse of trees, filmed apparently from a helicopter, circling. The bottom of the screen had a scrolling news ticker, with information about the crash. A news anchor was narrating what had happened and what they knew.
I forgot that I was still on the phone. Joyce was still saying words, but I wasn’t listening.
Wendy, having heard my half of the conversation, and seeing the television screen, immediately stood and went into “Mom mode.” She began gathering the children. Things were going to start happening quickly, and we needed everyone to get ready to leave the house.
“Thanks for calling, Joyce,” I said. “I have to go.”
I’m sure I said some other words, but my head was wrapped around figuring things out right then and there. A plane had crashed? Here in Lexington? Dad was on that plane? No way.
Too many coincidences. Too much to grasp. Too … crazy.
After hanging up, I immediately called Dad’s cellphone. It went straight to voice mail. I left a quick message, “Dad, it’s just me, just checking that you’re OK. Call me back.” I hung up. I called again. Dad never ignored my calls, but in the universal language of cellphone etiquette, everyone knows that two calls in a row mean that it’s important, and dad would answer even if he had ignored the first call. The second call went to his voice mail also. No ringing, just straight to his voice.
“You’ve reached the voice mail of Tim Snoddy. Please leave your message at the beep.”
I took a second to process what had just happened over the last five minutes. There was a plane crash — a big one. Here in Lexington? Dad may or may not be on it. I didn’t know he was planning to leave, but he traveled a lot with work. I had just seen him two days earlier, Friday, at the office. I remember waving hi to him, as he was in a conversation with another businessperson. I hadn’t had any meaningful conversation, but that was typical for a busy office. It was certainly within the realm of possibility that he was on the plane, but all I had was Joyce’s call to tell me that he was. I trusted Joyce, but I couldn’t let myself get too wrapped up in it. I needed a clear head. I needed to think straight. Above all, I needed to believe that he wasn’t on the plane until I heard otherwise.
I looked at my wife. She saw it in my eyes — the look of complete confusion and creeping dread.
“Joyce said Dad was on that plane,” I said, unnecessarily, in my first words to her since the call.
“What are we going to do?” Wendy asked.
“I don’t know.”
While I was gathering my thoughts, Wendy was in overdrive, getting kids dressed and making phone calls. She knew better than I did at that moment what was going to happen next. With her cellphone, she called her best friend, Ann, quickly told her that we had an emergency and made arrangements for the kids to go to her house for the day.
I kept the home phone in my hand. If this was really happening, I had to start letting the rest of the family know. I began to mentally note who I needed to call. I didn’t know who else would have known about the crash or Dad, but I had to assume that I was the only one so far. The first calls I made were to my brother, Josh, in Eastern Kentucky and my sister, Jocelynn, who lived in Los Angeles. I asked both if they knew where Dad was this morning, or if they’d talked to him. Neither had, and as quickly as I could, I told them about the plane crash and that he might be on it. Both took the news in stride.
I knew time was of the essence, to locate Dad as soon as possible to make sure he was OK. At the same time, I needed to steel the rest of the family for what might be coming.
After hanging up with my siblings, my next call was to my grandparents — my Dad’s dad and mom, Clinton and Joann. They were faithful church-goers, so I didn’t expect to get them on the phone on a Sunday morning, but my grandfather answered.
“Papaw, it’s Matthew. There’s been a plane crash at the airport. We don’t know everything yet, but Dad may have been on it.” I kept my message succinct and without speculation. I didn’t want to get too emotional, but I did want the word spread.
“OK,” my grandfather said in his sandpapery gruff voice, “What do we need to do?”
“At this point, I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure everything out. I’ll let you know as soon as I find out anything.” I knew that the machine was going to start up and calls would be made.
Papaw is nothing if not thorough, and he would begin letting the rest of the family know what was going on. That responsibility was off my shoulders.
My next call was the one I was least looking forward to: I needed to let my mother, Denise, know. She and Dad had been married for some 20 years, providing a stable home and family, raising me and my brother and sister, before they called it quits around the mid-1990s.
Despite the divorce, they remained close, and Dad supported her financially. I had been wandering around the house making the other calls, but I walked out to the front yard and stood in the driveway to make this one.
“Hey kiddo!” she answered.
“Mom, something serious has happened.”
She heard the tone of my voice and immediately got quiet. “What happened?”
“There’s been a plane crash. Dad may have been on it.”
The wail I heard from the other end was inhuman. I never want to hear a sound like that again.
“What am I going to do? What am I going to do? What am I going to do?” she repeated over and over.
I just listened for a while, and then I did my best to calm her. I was upset too, but I had to be strong enough to get through the morning.
“I don’t know, Mom. We don’t know for sure yet. There’s still hope. I just wanted to let you know. Things are happening quickly and I need to go.” Her call was the longest I’d had all morning, and the saddest.
Somehow, in the barely-controlled confusion of the minutes after the calls, I got myself dressed, and Ann came by the house and picked up the kids. I don’t think I even said two words to her — I was beyond distracted and trying to deal with information as it came in. Wendy explained to her what was going on. I was on autopilot, following a script known only to my subconscious.
I had called the toll-free number they were showing on the screen for families to give their information to the airline. Rather than immediately answer any questions, the line was set up to get information from loved ones who might have had someone on the plane. I left my name and number, and Dad’s information with the person on the other end of the line. I said I was his son. I hoped that someone would call back soon, but I didn’t know what to expect. I imagined they were getting flooded with calls, not all from friends or family.
In the meantime, I got a call from Ed, another family friend who also knew Joyce and Dad very well. Ed was a perpetually jovial Steve Martin look-alike and was in the security industry and knew people everywhere — police, EMTs, firefighters and the like. He had friends at the airport.
He apparently had spoken to Joyce, and his wife, Renina, worked for Dad as his assistant and knew Dad’s schedule.
“Matt, I’m so sorry for what has happened. Renina and I want to help. I’m talking to some friends of mine. I’m going to the airport. I’ll meet you there.” His voice was serious, compassionate and authoritative. Until that moment, I was the only person in charge of our little band of family. It was good to hear someone else take some of the burden off my shoulders.
Ed was going to be our man on the inside. I was thankful that he was so open and caring.
Wendy and I got in the car and began the 30-minute drive across town to the airport. The radio was off. Wendy and I were quiet, lost in our own thoughts as I went through the motions of driving. As we approached, we got another call from Ed.
“Matt, they’re asking everyone not to come to the airport, but go to Rupp Arena instead. There’s a lot of reporters here and they don’t have anywhere to put everyone. Meet me there.”
We switched course and headed downtown to Rupp Arena.
We met Ed in front of the building. He looked apologetic.
“No one is here. I’m told that everyone’s at the Campbell House. We should go there instead.”
Wendy and I got back in the car. Wendy rolled her eyes at the insanity of our situation. We were growing frustrated, not at Ed or anyone else, but at the confusion and misinformation that permeates after a tragedy.
The Campbell House was a historic hotel in Lexington. The manager there, Gerry Vandermeer, had opened all the available meeting rooms and hotel rooms in blocks for friends and family of the crash. We shifted our course and went to the hotel.
As we pulled into the hotel parking lot, the gravity and chaos of the situation began to sink in.
All around were people, some police helping direct, a few reporters with cameras, but many others crying, hugging, walking arm in arm toward the front doors. Grief hung in the air like a heavy blanket.
I had called Papaw and let him know that the plan thus far was to just meet at the Campbell House. Since they lived in Lexington, they were able to meet us there as well. We didn’t know what to expect once there, but being somewhere trying to find out information was better than being at home, glued to the television, doing nothing.
We made our way through the front doors, and a helpful employee directed us toward a large meeting room down a back hallway that had been opened for family members. We gave a person at a table at the entrance our names and contact numbers, and Dad’s name. As we walked in, we saw hundreds of other people, all in various stages of disbelief and grief, all worrying, all grasping on to any information they could find.
Walking through the crowd, we overheard snippets of conversation. Words, phrases, tidbits and rumors softly slipped from phones to ears to mouths and across clusters of people to other clusters.
In a situation like this, information was currency, and everyone at the hotel had equally empty wallets. Worried faces and nervous hands grasped at anything new, trying not to be left out of any piece of information.
There were few facts available. We knew the plane had crashed inexplicably at the end of the wrong runway, the shorter of the two at the airport. It was meant only for small general aviation planes, not large jet airliners. We knew there had been a terrible fire, thanks to all the jet fuel loaded on the plane at the beginning of a journey. We knew that people had died.
Word began to spread of a survivor. My heart raced as the thought of Dad being the survivor crossed my mind. Other rumors were that the survivor had on a uniform — not great to hear, but heartening.
As we wandered around the hotel, in and out of conference rooms, to halls and past clutches of people, we saw other families doing the same as ours: gathering, finding each other, telling what they knew, and then long, aching periods of silence. A few chaplains and priests slowly filtered in and began quietly talking to groups of people. Families eyed each other warily, not sure whom to trust in this large room full of strangers under such stressful circumstances.
I’ve always prided myself on my pragmatism, and I refused to give in to any form of grief without the knowledge that Dad was on the plane.
An hour passed, maybe two, and nothing new happened. Time had no meaning at the Campbell House, except to delineate the Unknown we were stumbling around in, with the Known, which we knew would come. The family members stayed corralled, no one wanting to step out and miss anything on the off chance that some new tidbit might come to light while they were gone. Wendy and I stayed with our little group: my grandparents;, my aunt Terrie, Dad’s sister; and her husband, Farley; Joyce; and Ed and Renina.
Bottles of water and juice were distributed. Many boxes of Kleenex were put on tables and scattered around the rooms. Phone calls were made to other friends and family.
Then a person with a uniform came into our conference room. The room became quiet.
“Can I have everyone’s attention please? I just need to make the following announcement:
“There were no survivors.”
The room erupted. Screams and wails punctuated the sighs and groans of the assembled. One man picked up a chair and threw it in frustration.
The ridiculousness of the statement in a room full of already tense people was palpable. We already knew that there were survivors. We already knew that the statement was false and that there was at least one survivor. The man who made the announcement quickly left, realizing the hornet’s nest he’d just stirred up. To this day, I don’t know who he was or why he decided to make that statement, but it was miscalculated.
The room slowly began to calm down again, but it had become obvious that this was about to be mismanaged and that no one was really in charge of helping the families.
As we settled back into the routine, after some time, the calls began.
Like a scene out of a movie, cellphones started ringing across the conference room.
Some people answered, looked to the ground, shook their heads, and cried. Some just stared straight ahead. Some hugged those with them while on the phone.
I don’t remember seeing anyone with a sense of relief.
The calls were from the airline, letting people know whether their loved one was on the plane.
Soon, I got my call.
“Mr. Snoddy?” said the hollow voice on the other end.
“This is Delta Airlines calling you back about Tim Snoddy.”
“We can confirm Tim Snoddy checked in and was a passenger on the plane.”
I sighed and looked at the floor.
“Thank you …”
As I hung up, other people in my family were getting the same call.
The Unknown had become Known.
As the day progressed, it became obvious that not much else was going to happen. The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates airliner crashes, was in town already, starting to take charge of the accident.
They scheduled a conference at the hotel, at which they’d have police and firefighters who were there tell what they knew. My aunt Terrie took my grandparents home. Other people slowly filtered out, but many stayed for the conference.
Wendy and I took our seats at a table near another friendly-looking couple about our age. They were Wyn Morris and his wife, Vicki. Wyn’s dad, Leslie Morris, and her stepmother, Kaye Craig Morris, had been on the flight. We smiled weakly at each other and made small talk.
We listened as the people at the podium told what they knew. The plane was a Comair regional jet on a normal commuter flight to the Delta hub in Atlanta. It had 50 people on it. There was a sole survivor, the first officer in the cockpit of the plane, who was rescued by a police officer named Bryan Jared, who was one of the first-responders. The plane had tried to take off the wrong runway, which was too short for the takeoff roll. It had crashed into a group of trees at the end of the runway. There was a terrible fire, and nearly the entire plane burned.
There were lots of other technical details: the weather, the plane, the runway. None of it made any sense, though. Why would a plane line up on the wrong runway? Why wouldn’t they stop once they realized where they were? Everyone was talking about facts, but no one was answering the big question: Why?
Deborah Hersman, the principal on-site investigator for the NTSB, announced that there would be daily conferences for the next several days. Families would be encouraged to attend, or listen via a conference call from wherever they might be, to get the latest information and findings.
Wendy and I were offered a hotel room to stay in, but we declined and left to go back home.
When we arrived, home was the same place, but it felt very different. We were changed people. After all the calls, the crying, the listening, the disbelief, and the sheer tragedy of it all, I went upstairs to our bedroom and slumped into a chair. The weight of everything that had just happened in the previous several hours was too much to bear. I was hungry but didn’t eat. I was tired but didn’t sleep. I wanted to talk but had nothing to say. I was lost inside my own head.
Wendy and I put the kids to bed and then went to bed ourselves.
Neither of us slept at all that night. We kept the TV on and stared at it without watching anything.
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 chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board. The memorial will stream live on wkyt.com in addition to broadcasting on WKYT (channel 27.1).
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.