Crash of Flight 5191

Day of mourning: Families visit crash site


Traffic parted on Versailles Road for six Wildcat-blue buses carrying family members of the 49 victims of Comair Flight 5191.

Grieving relatives who looked out the bus windows saw a long line of staff members from Southland Christian Church, holding homemade signs reading “God loves you” and “You are in our prayers.”

Family members were met at the crash site by saluting Lexington police officers and dozens of Red Cross workers solemnly bowing their heads.

Not far away, at a temporary memorial at Blue Grass Airport, a new husband and wife directed their florist to place a pair of leftover wedding wreaths. They dedicated them to another newlywed pair who died on the plane. Both couples were married on Saturday.

While the “Remembering 5191” banner at the airport became a center of grief, it was a day for mourning throughout Lexington.

Emotions that had been building across the community since Sunday morning’s crash poured out through personal messages and signs of comfort for victims’ families.

That swelling of support and sorrow seemed to temporarily push aside technical questions about runways and control towers and pilots -- issues that transportation investigators continue to probe.

The large vinyl banner at the airport’s memorial attracted many who knew one or several of the 49 who died. But it also brought out Central Kentucky residents who weren’t acquainted with any of the victims.

“It’s a real emotional time right now for a lot of people,” said Verline Campbell, who accompanied her niece, Sabrina Cobb, to the memorial.

Campbell didn’t know anyone on the plane. But Cobb went to high school in Laurel County with Mike Finley, who ran skating rink and game facilities in London, Danville and Somerset.

“Dealing with it in your heart, you’ve got a heavy burden for the families,” Cobb said, her voice cracking. “I’m just thankful they gave us a place to come.”

The memorial

Those who came left behind scores of Sharpie messages on the sign.

One person tied a “Thinking of You” balloon to a single red rose for Marcie Thomason, who had flown into Lexington last weekend for her wedding shower.

Someone else left a leather horse bridle on the corner of the sign, perhaps in memory of trainer George Brunacini or Meadow Haven Farm manager Dan Mallory, or possibly for Paige Winters, the 16-year old Leawood, Kan., rider.

Or maybe it was for all of them.

Several people addressed their messages at the memorial to Jonathan and Scarlett Parsley Hooker, the newlyweds who had been married mere hours and were on their way to honeymoon in California when the plane crashed.

Jason and Allison Breitenstein were married the same day. On either side of the remembrance sign were wreaths of lavender-and-white flowers that had hung that day on the doors of Versailles Baptist Church.

“They just wanted them to know they were thinking of them,” said Connie Thompson at Flower Basket Florist in Versailles. She helped arrange to send the wreaths to the memorial.

Kay Phillips, Allison Breitenstein’s mother, said the couple received calls Sunday morning from concerned friends when word got out that newlyweds were aboard Flight 5191.

It hit even harder when the couple learned that it was former University of Kentucky baseball player Jon Hooker and his new wife on the plane. Jason Breitenstein served as the baseball manager while Hooker was on the team.

The procession

Halfway across town, families of the victims began preparing about 10 a.m. for their first trek to the crash scene tucked among the hills and horse pastures of a farm adjacent to the airport.

About 200 people slowly boarded Bluegrass Tours buses at the Crowne Plaza Campbell House in a drizzling rain, then left shortly after 11:30 behind an escort of police cruisers and motorcycles and an ambulance.

Before the procession pulled away, bouquets of flowers were loaded into the buses. One appeared to be in the shape of a Comair emblem.

About the time the families entered the buses, 20 cars pulled to the side of Versailles Road near Keeneland.

Fifty-two staff members from Southland Christian Church got out and stood alongside the six-lane stretch of road holding their signs. As the procession passed by, family members could be seen inside the busses dabbing their eyes.

Jon Weece, senior pastor for the city’s largest congregation, said the staff sought to show their support.

“We just want this to stand for itself,” Weece said.

At the site

Some relatives prayed inside the bus carrying the Heyer family members, who would for the first time see where their brother and son had died.

Others sat silently. Some cried.

Erik Heyer expected it to be hard to see the spot where his brother, flight attendant Kelly Heyer, died.

The depth of the community’s mourning hit him as the bus passed the row of uniformed motorcycle officers standing at attention. Next came Red Cross volunteers and teams from the Salvation Army. And, finally, he said “what looked like hundreds of patrol cars.”

All those present stood, head bowed in respect for the dead and grieving.

He called it “awe-inspiring.”

Heyer said no official memorial took place at the site, no collective moment of silence or group prayer.

Distanced from the crash by the yellow police tape, Heyer said the site looked familiar from photos he’d already seen.

He was hoping for closure. A sense of a final goodbye. It didn’t come. Standing within sight of where the plane first clipped the trees, he scanned the wreckage.

“I just spent most of the time looking at the place where my brother would have been,” he said. “I was looking for anything, anything.”

But there was nothing

The families remained at the site for about 90 minutes.

As the buses headed back toward the hotel around 1:34, traffic stopped again.

The normally busy corridor was eerily hushed except for the faint rumbling of a U.S. Airways jet that had taken off from Blue Grass Airport.

Grieving community

Mourning extends to those hailed as heroes.

Mike Gobb, executive director of Blue Grass Airport, said the psychological shock of the accident probably hasn’t hit airport personnel and other first responders.

“You’re so busy in the first few days and hours that you’re not thinking about the emotional impact,” he said. “It’s when things wind down a little bit and you start to digest what you saw -- that’s when it hits.”

Gobb said counseling will be available for workers.

The tragedy, simply, has become a shared experience for the community, said Barbara Bouton, director of professional development with the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

So many have taken off from Blue Grass Airport, people know their fate could have been that of those on Flight 5191, she said.

The pain is universally felt. Brothers, mothers, newlyweds, businessmen and, sadly, one child died.

Bouton said that for survivors to feel support is key.

Erik Heyer, brother of the flight attendant, noted on his blog linked to the radio station where he works that he was struck by the outpouring of compassion.

“Total strangers, but to us they felt like close friends. It was tough to see,” he wrote. “Thank you for your prayers. We all know it made us stronger today.”

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