Even now, five years later, Deborah Hersman can't stop herself from choking up when she talks about the day Comair Flight 5191 crashed at Blue Grass Airport.
"The accident occurred at 6 o'clock in the morning, and there were hundreds of people who stopped what they were doing and started to help," she said with frequent pauses in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. this week. "It was people from Home Depot who came out and brought us rope and work gloves, the people who lined the streets when ... when the families were being brought in, and they held signs up ... it was just a special community."
Hersman's memories are vivid not just because she was the lead federal investigator at the scene, but because her husband's family is from Lexington and the crash became very personal.
Hersman, 41, returned to Lexington a year after the crash for a memorial service, and she'll be here again on Saturday to speak at the memorial to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the crash. This time, however, she's the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, overseeing what she says is a very different aviation landscape.
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"It (the 5191 crash) was a wake-up call for an industry that had gotten complacent on safety," she said. "There was a recognition in the industry that they had to be better and more vigilant."
On Aug. 27, 2006, on a foggy, dark morning, Flight 5191 took off from the wrong runway, a shorter one used for private aviation. The plane ran out of pavement before it could get high enough, crashing into a field and killing 49 people aboard. Only co-pilot James Polehinke survived.
In the wake of the crash, the NTSB found that a series of small errors — including that pilots missed clues they were on the wrong runway — had led to a large tragedy.
The agency issued 11 recommendations, several of which were adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration, including better scheduling and training for air controllers, better markings and lighting on runways, and specific directions from controllers to pilots when crossing runway intersections.
"We know that very simple errors resulted in a tragic outcome for 49 people," she said.
Because of Hersman's personal connections to Lexington — she spent the first 10 Christmases of her married life here — she connected to the people on the ground and the victims families in a more direct way than other federal bureaucrats might have.
"The very first meeting I had with her, that evening of the accident, she had a quiet, calm confidence that it will get better," said Scott Lanter, who is still the director of public safety and operations at Blue Grass Airport. "I think a lot of people picked up on the feeling she was one of us and she was suffering as much as we were."
Hersman forged many close connections here. For example, then-Lexington Police Chief Anthany Beatty attended her installation as NTSB chairwoman.
Beatty said that when federal agencies get involved in an investigation, local law enforcement can feel pushed aside.
"But we were very impressed with Debbie and the NTSB because they worked to accommodate us," said Beatty, now a vice president at the University of Kentucky. "She has a calm, easygoing manner about her that gives a steadying effect."
Lois Turner, whose husband, Larry, was on the flight, has now spoken at three NTSB training sessions to help responders and investigators deal with families.
"The Lexington community just kind of embraced her, and she loves us all and has so much respect for how the community came together after the crash," Turner said. "She's so professional and so knowledgeable, but so caring."
Hersman is happy to return the compliments. As a young NTSB board member, the 5191 crash was one of the worst she had ever seen, and she learned a great deal, not just about accident investigations, but about the best ways to deal with families and communities.
"Lexington is a place not like other places," Hersman said. "I remember I was at the airport on the morning of the accident and one of the first people I encountered was at the rental car counter. She asked if we were there to investigate and said, 'Thank you for being here and God bless you.' That kind of reaction and response was so typical."