Fayette County

Blood drive captures community spirit following Comair Flight 5191 crash

Phlebotomist DeShannon Freeman prepped blood donor Whitney Sandusky during an American Red Cross blood drive at the Campbell House in Lexington, Ky, on July 8, 2016. The blood drive was in honor of the victims of the Comair Flight 5191crash nearly 10 years ago.
Phlebotomist DeShannon Freeman prepped blood donor Whitney Sandusky during an American Red Cross blood drive at the Campbell House in Lexington, Ky, on July 8, 2016. The blood drive was in honor of the victims of the Comair Flight 5191crash nearly 10 years ago. palcala@herald-leader.com

A decade ago, former Campbell House General Manager Gerry van der Meer experienced something he had never seen after the hotel became a gathering point for families of some of the 49 people who died in the crash of Comair Flight 5191.

When he told the staff of the South Broadway hotel that everyone’s schedules had changed and caring for the families was top priority, they came in at a moment’s notice, van der Meer said . Shortly after, the hotel was flooded with calls from Lexingtonians asking to volunteer at the hotel.

“It was amazing to see the amount of comfort, not only our staff provided, but the community provided to the families,” van der Meer said. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my 40 years in the hotel industry.”

Approaching a decade after the August 27, 2006 crash at Blue Grass Airport, current General Manager Michael Curd said Campbell House dedicated their annual blood drive Friday, held in conjunction with the American Red Cross, to remembering victims of the crash and recapturing the community’s sense of compassion.

“It’s our second time hosting this blood drive but we wanted to promote the importance and the timing of donating blood,” Curd said.

American Red Cross Account Manager Gene Baker said summer is when the service organization gets fewer donations and more requests for help. The Red Cross needs 40,000 units of blood daily to assist the nation.

On Friday, six volunteers were busy in a small cordoned section of the hotel’s Colonial Ballroom attending to a steady stream of donor’s who showed up to show their support. Some came because they are frequent donors that understand the Red Cross’s need for blood, but others being helped onto the red cots had deeper connections.

One of the donors, Tom Sweeney, is married to Jean Smith, the widow of Pat Smith, who was traveling to Mississippi on Comair Flight 5191 to work with Habitat for Humanity. The Pat Smith Foundation, which builds a house in Lexington each year, was named in his honor.

When a tragedy like this happens, people need to step up and that’s when we need to come together as a society. The basic rule about life is love your neighbor as yourself and it’s sad that people have a hard time grasping that.

Tom Sweeney, blood drive donor and husband to Pat Smith’s widow Jean Smith

Sweeney said he came to support the Red Cross’s mission and to commemorate an event that still affects the Lexington community.

“When I saw that this drive was happening near the tenth year of the crash, for me, it was a no brainer,” Sweeney said. “When a tragedy like this happens, people need to step up and that’s when we need to come together as a society. The basic rule about life is love your neighbor as yourself and it’s sad that people have a hard time grasping that.”

Sweeney’s wife had planned to donate as well but was ineligible to give blood because she had been to Ghana recently to assist in building a school.

Kathy Howard was working at the University of Kentucky as a graphic designer for the engineering department when the plane crash happened.

Howard is a regular donor to Kentucky Blood Center but said she decided to come to the blood drive because of her connection to the crash. Howard said a friend of hers recently posted a photo of his dad that had been a passenger on Flight 5191 and she couldn’t help but think of him.

“When I read about this blood drive, that photo came to mind,” Howard said. “I hope that I can honor his dad’s memory, at least in an indirect way.”

Several hotel employees also signed up to donate, including Robin Brown, who said she had been working at Campbell House for 10 years and remembered the families that stayed there after the tragedy.

“Everybody was on pins and needles, asking which way to go now,” Brown said of the morning after the crash. “We had no idea what to say to them.”

Though the crash was still on her mind, Brown said she donates blood whenever possible.

“People need blood, and if I’ve got the good kind, I want them to have it,” Brown said.

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