Filmmaker Ky Dickens would come home from visits with James and Ida Polehinke, fall into bed and weep.
"I would just cry myself to sleep; it was so heavy, so dense and so thick," she said of the time she and her crew spent with the co-pilot and sole survivor of Comair Flight 5191, which crashed at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington early on Aug. 27, 2006, killing 49 people. "It's horrible, and I would come home from the airport and cry for a day or two because it was so much energy and you had to release it. You didn't know what to do with it."
Dickens spent several years working with the Polehinkes, and with others who have connections to the Lexington crash, for her documentary film Sole Survivor, which will be screened at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Kentucky Theatre.
The film profiles four of the 17 people in the world who are sole survivors of commercial airline crashes, including all three who live in the United States.
She said she was inspired to make the film by her own experience as the sole survivor of an auto accident when she was in high school.
"I switched places with someone, and 10 minutes later the guy I switched places with, who got in the front seat, died in the car crash," Dickens said Tuesday in a phone interview. "I had a lot of survivor's guilt after that ... and that stuck with me for a long time, and I always had a keen interest in survivors' stories."
That interest led her to contact George Lamson, the sole survivor of Galaxy Flight 203, a plane bound for Minneapolis that crashed shortly after takeoff from Reno, Nev., in 1985, killing 70 people.
"He told me he wasn't healed, and he didn't think he would ever heal from his survivor's guilt," Dickens said. "He didn't have the strength to reach out to other sole survivors or confront victims' families. He was locked in his own room, so to speak."
So she suggested that she could follow him and document the process of reaching out.
That idea soon led to Polehinke, who now lives in Colorado and continues to deal with injuries from the crash, including the loss of use of his legs and the effects of head trauma.
Until working with Dickens, Polehinke had not spoken publicly about the tragedy, which a National Transportation Safety Board report concluded was due to pilot error.
"For Jim, this is something that he thinks about every day," Dickens said. "He doesn't sleep; he can't sleep through the night. He's always emotionally burdened by this. There's obviously depression and suicidal thoughts, but then that seems unfair, in some aspect, to him because he's become a born-again Christian, and his church and his faith mean the world to him. There is an element to Jim that feels like he has to keep living because he lived.
"So he's stuck here with this pain and this guilt, not knowing how to live."
Dickens said she initially wrote the Polehinkes a letter describing what she wanted to do, and she thinks he thought the documentary format was the best way to address the matter publicly. Television and print interviews risked misinterpretation or misunderstanding through their brevity, she says, but the documentary format allowed him to tell his own story thoroughly and finally reach out, particularly to victims' families.
"When I met him, the thing he talked about the most was that he desperately wanted people to know that he was there to answer questions, and that if they had anything they wanted to say to him — good, bad, ugly — he was there," Dickens said. "He wanted to hear from them, he wanted to help, he wanted to take it. He just didn't know how — how to go about it."
During the making of the film, Dickens says, she facilitated communication between Polehinke and several victims' families.
"I've gotten a few messages in the last few weeks saying talking to him has been surprisingly helpful," Dickens said.
Already screened twice
The film has been screened in Minneapolis and Detroit, the other two cities affected by sole-survivor crashes that are portrayed in the film. After Lexington, Sole Survivor will begin its journey into the film festival market, with Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan, where it is scheduled to screen twice on July 27. The ultimate hope is that the film will find a distributor for release later this year.
Dickens strongly emphasizes that no one, including Polehinke, is making money off the film. Proceeds from Thursday's screening will be donated to Flight 5191 charities.
There will not be a panel discussion after the film. But Dickens, a couple of her colleagues and Shawn Pruchnicki, an Ohio State University aviation-studies instructor and accident investigator who worked on the 5191 case, will be available in the lobby to answer questions.
Some of the victims' families have seen the film in advance, and all who have plan to be at Thursday's screening, she said.
One who has not yet seen it is Wyn Morris, owner of The Morris Book Shop. His father, lawyer Leslie Morris, died in the crash.
He said he is going to the film with "cautious optimism."
"I need to see it so I stop wondering what is in it," he said. He has seen only trailers and other promotional materials. "I'm looking forward to it."
He said that based on Dickens' communications with victims' families, he thinks the film "is going to be from a good place."
Dickens said the one aspect that she heard troubled families who have seen the film is the discussion of the investigation.
"Congress mandates from the NTSB a probable cause, which is an archaic way of looking at accidents, because you're fixing only one thing when something horrible happens instead of two, to five, to 10 things," Dickens said. "So the investigators in our film talk about how this 5191 tragedy is an example of a systems accident, where everyone, including the pilots, share some of the blame, and had one of those things not happened, the entire tragedy probably would have been prevented."
Dickens said it was not so much that assertion that upset families but that an investigation that had brought some closure was re-examined.
"You think you have a piece of the puzzle toward healing locked in, and we're opening it back up again," Dickens said. "But it's to help make us all safer."
She said it is in no way brought up to absolve Polehinke of responsibility.
"Jim is very forthright in accepting his part in the systems accident," Dickens said. "He shouldered the blame, and he's not trying to evade that at all.
"He wishes he had died."
If IF YOU GO
What: Screening of director Ky Dickens' documentary film about sole survivors of commercial airline crashes
When: 7:30 p.m. July 18
Where: Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St.
Tickets: $9. Proceeds will benefit various Flight 5191 charities. Go to Kentuckytheater.com for advance tickets and more information.