Silence spoke as hundreds of people watched pastor Jon Weece hold up one white poster after another, each with a message hand-written in black.
“5191 is not just a number” one read. “5191 was not just a flight,” read another.
One read simply: “49”
Forty-nine people died in a rush of fire and confusion in a field near Bluegrass Airport shortly after 6 a.m. on Aug. 27, 2006. Ten years later, on Saturday morning, 300 relatives and friends sat under a white tent near a memorial sculpture built at the Arboretum to honor the dead.
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Several hundred more, some who brought lawn chairs, some who stood silently in the heat, also listened as Weece, pastor of Southland Christian Church, worked through his wordless message accompanied only by the whoosh of two large fans and the muffled sounds of grief. Volunteers from the Red Cross and Southland had handed out bottles of water, fans and packages of tissues. There were speeches, music, hymns, and the release of doves during the two-hour ceremony, but it was most remarkable that so many people could be so still.
“We all remember where we were that day,” read a poster.
Community leaders, religious figures and relatives of the victims came to a lectern on a small stage at the front of the tent to talk of the shock and grief of that unexpected Sunday morning. With 49 people on the plane, the tragedy reached far into Central Kentucky and across the commonwealth, and indeed around the world. Nahoko and Tetsuya Kono had moved to Kentucky from Japan just 18 months before they died in the crash. Members of their family were in attendance Saturday.
Three representatives spoke for the families: Matthew Snoddy, who lost his father; Sue Byrd, who lost a son; and Anita Threet, who lost her husband. Each said they found strength through knowing the community was mourning with them. Love and friendship can grow from tragedy, said Byrd, who honored Lois Turner Dees, an early leader among the families, in her talk Saturday. Dees lost her husband, Larry Turner, in the crash and died herself in 2013.
Threet was left with four small children when her husband, Greg, was killed. She said Saturday that the tragedy made her a better person and that the strength and love of the community sustained her. She said she still sees her husband in the eyes of their youngest child, who was just seven weeks old at the time of the crash.
Threet and many of the other families have found healing through good works for others. Throughout the ceremony there was talk of scholarships that have been created, memorial fundraisers that help the living, and houses built through Habitat for Humanity in honor of Pat Smith, a Lexington engineer on the way to build a project when he died.
Deborah Hersman, former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the tragedy of Flight 5191 helped change aviation policy to improve flight safety.
Yet for all the good, there is still loss.
Hospice of the Bluegrass, one of the key organizers, asked relatives if they would like to talk to the press after the ceremony. Gloria Parsley’s daughter, Scarlett. became Mrs. Jonathan Hooker the night before the couple died on the way to their honeymoon.
“I want to thank all of Kentucky for mourning with us,” Parsley said, a button showing the couple on their wedding day pinned to her chest and tears still coming to her eyes. “The grief is always in my heart.”
While everyone who lost someone has been forced to move on, clearly the pain remains acute for some. A middle-aged man in the very back row cried silently into a towel he brought from home through much of the ceremony. A red-headed child, clearly too young to have known anyone on the flight, rarely let go of his mom’s hand, leaning in for comfort as the names of each of the 49 were read out loud and a bell rang. A burly man in a cowboy hat and dark sunglasses focused his smartphone intently on a single name on the base of the soaring sculpture of 49 birds in flight as others went to their cars.
“Live like they lived,” read one of Weece’s posters. And another, near the end of his presentation, said “Love Never Fails.”