As WVLK radio’s Jack Pattie read the name of each of the 49 people who died aboard Comair flight 5191, first responders tolled a bell that echoed through the hushed crowd.
As the last name was read and the last bell sounded at Saturday’s 10th anniversary memorial service at the Arboretum on Alumni Drive, an aircraft flew overhead and filled the silence. It was a reminder that life goes on, even if things will never be the same.
The families and friends of those aboard the commuter jet when it crashed on takeoff from Blue Grass Airport early that Sunday morning have never been the same, and neither has Lexington.
“It changed our city,” University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto said. “Victims’ families don’t move on, they move with. This community is moving with.”
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As many people remarked during the service, the crash was a vivid illustration that Kentucky’s second-largest city is really just a big small town. If you didn’t know somebody on board that plane, you probably knew somebody who knew somebody.
“Today is evidence of the strength we provide to one another,” Capilouto said.
The memorial service speakers hit all of the right notes, reflecting not only on the community’s sense of loss but upon the healing, hope and unity that emerged from tragedy.
“What a privilege it is to live in a city where we care for one another,” Mayor Jim Gray said. “Your presence reminds us that the human spirit triumphs in times of adversity. It does not fail.”
Several hundred people crowded in an around a huge tent for the outdoor service in the state botanical garden. The tent was just up a hill from where, five years ago, there was a similar service that dedicated Kentucky artist Douwe Blumberg’s elegant memorial sculpture of 49 silver birds in flight.
Three people who lost family members in the crash spoke of the love and support they have received from the community, and of how the tragedy had shaped them.
“I am stronger, more patient, humble and more generous, less judgmental and more tolerant,” said Anita Threet, who lost her husband, Greg Threet. “It changed our families, and it changed our community.”
There were many kind words for first responders, community leaders and members of the commission that planned the monument. And, although investigators found that the crash resulted from a series of human errors, there were no traces of bitterness in the remarks.
Matthew Snoddy, who lost his father, Tim Snoddy, thanked Comair and its parent company, Delta Air Lines, for the support it gave the victims’ families. And he offered kind thoughts to the crash’s sole survivor, co-pilot James Polehinke, and his family.
Among those who spoke was Deborah Hersman, who directed the investigation of the crash for the National Transportation Safety Board. Her husband’s family is from Lexington, and she had attended previous memorial services.
“So many lives were touched by the loss of 49 precious souls,” she said. “It seemed the entire community was in pain, and this simple realization strengthened my faith in humanity. Lexington reminded me and the entire commonwealth that we are all part of a larger family.”
She noted the many good works done and initiatives started as memorials to those who died, including scholarships and charitable foundations worth well over $1 million.
Hersman, now president of the National Safety Council, said that nearly a dozen recommendations from the investigation have made aviation safer. But she also made a sobering request.
While there has been only one aviation accident as deadly as Comair flight 5191 in the decade since then, she said, 100 people die daily in crashes on the nation’s roadways — “the equivalent of two Comairs going down every day.”
“These deaths are completely preventable,” Hersman said. “I would ask each of you when you leave today to make a commitment to safety. Don’t drive impaired. Put your phones down. You each hold people’s lives in your hands.”
If there is a lesson for Lexington in the crash of Comair flight 5191, that is it. We hold each other in our hands, both in how we respond to tragedies and how we act to prevent future ones. We cannot change the mistakes of the past, but we can learn from them.