Fayette County

Comair 5191 crash's surviving copilot speaks in documentary film

Jim Polehinke and his wife, Ida, will tell their story in Sole Survivor, an upcoming documentary about survivors of mass-casualty plane crashes. Polehinke was the copilot of Comair Flight 5191, which crashed in Lexington on Aug. 27, 2006, killing 49 people. He was the only survivor. Photo provided by WKYT.
Jim Polehinke and his wife, Ida, will tell their story in Sole Survivor, an upcoming documentary about survivors of mass-casualty plane crashes. Polehinke was the copilot of Comair Flight 5191, which crashed in Lexington on Aug. 27, 2006, killing 49 people. He was the only survivor. Photo provided by WKYT.

In the years that followed the crash of Comair Flight 5191, one voice has been conspicuously absent from the courtroom dramas, memorial services, media reports and safety investigations.

Jim Polehinke, the co-pilot and only survivor, became somewhat of a mystery after the crash that killed 49 people at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington in 2006. Few knew the sound of his voice, the extent of his injuries, or where he lived.

The shroud surrounding Polehinke's survival will be lifted later this year when Sole Survivor, a new documentary by Chicago filmmaker Ky Dickens, casts Polehinke as a central figure.

On Monday, select portions of the documentary featuring Polehinke talking about the crash will be shown on the 6 p.m. newscast of WKYT-TV (Channel 27), Lexington's CBS affiliate. In addition to Polehinke's appearance, there will be interviews with family members of the victims of Flight 5191.

In the film, Polehinke discusses his recovery and his hazy memories from the moments before the plane went down, as well as his guilt about being at the helm of the plane during a crash the National Transportation Safety Board ruled as being caused by pilot error.

Polehinke kept a newspaper article, detailing the names and destinations of all the passengers who were killed, under his wheelchair.

"The accident again is as fresh as it was yesterday," Polehinke said in footage from the film provided to WKYT.

Polehinke is one of several sole survivors of commuter plane crashes around the world highlighted in the film. Sole Survivor will be submitted to film festivals starting this fall, with further distribution plans still in the works.

Dickens began working on Sole Survivor about two years ago. There were at least 14 sole survivors of commuter plane crashes in the history of aviation, she said, and her goal was to unite them and explore how being the only survivor of a mass-casualty plane crash affects their lives.

"It felt like an important story to tell," she said. "A lot of people in society don't always understand. A lot of people think the survivors are lucky to have lived, but that's not always the case."

Dickens was two-thirds of the way through filming before she met Polehinke, who is wheelchair-bound from injuries sustained in the crash.

He now lives in Colorado.

Polehinke took on a larger-than-planned role in the film when it became clear to Dickens that his story was different and more involved.

He was the only one with a significant disability; he lost the use of both legs and had one amputated below the knee.

"Many survivors have burns, some are missing fingers, but in terms of not being able to walk, Jim was the only one that had suffered such a physical impairment," she said.

He also was the only pilot among the sole survivors; the others were all passengers.

The film focuses on that "emotional experience, having been the sole survivor and, in the end, held accountable by the NTSB for the deaths of so many people," she said.

Dickens spent about eight months getting to know Polehinke, whom she described as funny, trusting and intelligent. She also said he thinks about the crash daily and occasionally ventures into a "dark place" in his mind.

Polehinke has found therapy in skiing and religion, Dickens said, and hopes to use his story as inspiration for people in similar difficult circumstances.

Dickens and her crew gave WKYT the exclusive clip of Polehinke in exchange for its news footage filmed after the crash.

Over the years, many people — lawyers, attorneys, journalists and loved ones of other victims — had reached out to Polehinke, but he's never spoken publicly.

Sam Dick, an anchor for WKYT, interviewed family members of those who died in the crash. They had never heard Polehinke speak, and their reactions to the footage will make up a portion of the newscast.

The last that many people heard about Polehinke were reports that he was recovering from a coma and possibly had significant brain damage.

"They had the impression ... that for many years, he was so badly injured that he was not capable of communicating," Dick said. "To see him, to hear from him for the first time, was pretty eye-opening."

Among those who viewed the footage was Lois Turner, wife of University of Kentucky Associate Dean Larry Turner, who died in the crash.

Lois Turner, who became somewhat of a spokeswoman for the many families affected by the crash in the lengthy legal battles that followed, described seeing and hearing Polehinke as "surreal."

"I was just really surprised because I think all along, we knew he had been severely injured," she said. "We hadn't heard anything for 51/2 years."

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