Bill Demrow had a tough decision to make Sunday morning as he drove to meet other members of a state team who were preparing to recover bodies from the wreckage of Comair Flight 5191.
“I had to decide in my own mind, more or less pray about it and decide, ‘Do I keep going or do I turn around?’ “ he said yesterday.
He kept going and later worked for hours, pulling many of the 49 victims from charred remains of the plane, knowing all the while that his sister and brother-in-law were on board.
“I didn’t tell anybody what I knew. I knew if I did they’d make me go home,” said Demrow, Lincoln County’s coroner for the past 26 years and a member of the Kentucky Coroner/Medical Examiner State Mass Fatality Response Team that responded to the crash.
Bobbie Sue Demrow Benton and her husband, Jesse Clark Benton, were on their way to Aruba, a 50th birthday gift to Bobbie Sue from her husband.
Demrow has dealt with death all his life. He and Bobbie Sue and their four other siblings grew up camping out, playing hide-and-seek and working in a Lincoln County cemetery where their father, Jake Demrow, was a grave digger.
Bill Demrow and others in the state mass fatality response team, an elite group with about a dozen first responders from across the state, worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck.
“We moved about 350 bodies in seven days. We were the first people to move bodies in New Orleans,” he said, adding that the team got praise nationally for the job they did there.
“You have to be able to respond, no excuses, no delay, always every time, every day.”
And so Demrow decided he had to work the Lexington plane crash scene. His fellow coroners would have done the same thing, he said.
“I did far more good for my family doing that than I would have being back here and not knowing what was going on,” he said.
“I was actively, physically involved in the body retrieval from the wreckage. As I did that, my mind and a lot of my actions continually focused on that my sister wore braces,” he said. “I was focusing on braces.
“I never found them.”
He said that part of him hoped that his loved ones’ remains were among those he took from the plane, and that another part of him hoped they weren’t.
“I know now that they were seated in Row 7,” he said. He thinks some of the bodies he retrieved were in that area.
Demrow got the call to meet team members in Frankfort about 7 a.m. Sunday and was on his way within 15 minutes. He knew his sister and brother-in-law were flying out of Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport that morning, but he said, “I never made the connection in my mind.”
Demrow’s wife, Debbie, did. She informed him after finding out the Bentons’ flight number from their children.
Demrow eventually did tell Mike Wilder of Perryville, deputy coordinator of the recovery team, that he had family members on the plane.
Wilder said, “He told me real quick not to open my mouth about it, that he wanted to be there, that if it were my sister, I’d probably do the same thing.
“He did extremely well. I worked by him all day long,” Wilder said. “He was very professional all day. I have all of the admiration in the world for him. It just took a tremendous amount of courage and stamina. The conditions we were working under were just horrible.”
Demrow said his sister was a devout Christian who was “so involved in her community and church.”
“She’ll be buried in the cemetery we grew up in,” he said, referring to Buffalo Springs Cemetery in Stanford, where the Demrow children had helped their father with mowing and weeding.
“We grew up very poor. We didn’t have a whole lot. But everybody knew the value of work,” he said.
Demrow said he and his brother-in-law, a retired Marine, rode motorcycles together.
On Monday, Demrow hand-carried the Bentons’ dental records to the State Central Laboratory in Frankfort, where the bodies from the crash were taken, thinking it might speed up the process of identifying the Bentons’ remains.
He knew better than to ask if he could help out.
“They wouldn’t let me at that point. They already knew,” he said.