Forty-nine candles were lit at the Lexington Opera House yesterday morning -- each representing one of the victims of Comair Flight 5191 -- near the end of a solemn and private memorial service for the passengers and crew members lost when the plane crashed Sunday morning.
Gov. Ernie Fletcher and Mayor Teresa Isaac joined a number of Lexington clergymen in offering words of support and comfort for family members who have felt little but pain and loss since the plane went down at Blue Grass Airport five days ago.
Lt. Stewart Dawson, chaplain of the Lexington Fire Department, opened the program with a prayer and a few remarks. Dawson has been assisting the families since Sunday morning, and was at the airport to receive the first families to arrive after the crash.
He said he tried to offer the families a message of hope yesterday.
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"I said that the lights we were lighting represented the lives of loved ones," he said. "The lights that they lived in their lives cannot be taken away ... Light remains a symbol of hope as they continue on in their lives, there will be more light and more hope in the days ahead."
An estimated 500 to 600 family members attended, according to a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, which helped facilitate the service at the request of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash.
Most of the families arrived aboard Bluegrass Tours buses with a police escort; others chose to drive their private vehicles.
NTSB board member Debbie Hersman, who is leading the crash investigation, attended the service.
Lexington police closed off the sidewalks around the opera house to ensure privacy for the families as they arrived.
"This is a very emotional time for all of them," Red Cross spokeswoman Amber Youngblood said outside the opera house. "Some are still very emotional, some are struggling to contain their emotions. It has been a horrific week for them, and we simply hope that this will be a step in their healing process."
The Red Cross provided several volunteers to assist the families in moving in and out of the opera house, and a contingent from Comair's "care team" also was on hand to offer any help needed.
Both the Red Cross and Comair have had teams on hand since the crash to assist family members in any way possible. Both organizations had workers, including spiritual counselors, on the buses that carried family members to a private tour of the crash site on Wednesday.
According to Youngblood, more than 60 Red Cross members have been providing assistance to family workers, emergency crews and others involved in the crash since Sunday. Many of them are volunteers from the Lexington area, others are from cities scattered across the country, she said.
Stanley Dunk, a Red Cross chaplain sent from Washington, D.C., said the intent of the service was to let families know they are not alone.
"It was a message of hope; a message of consolation; it was a message of community and faith," he said.
Dunk, who goes to many disasters, said they never become routine.
"I can tell you that everyone I know who is a part of the American Red Cross ... has been personally moved by these losses."
Also personally touched was the Rev. Nick Pagano, who serves at St. Peter Catholic Church and the Cathedral of Christ The King in Lexington. Pagano, who offered the closing prayer yesterday, personally knows two families that lost loved ones in the crash.
"I think the service was a matter of the community coming together to tell these families that they are now a part of our family," Pagano said. "Even though we can't fully know what they have gone through, we are here to help and support them in whatever way they need.
"By sharing their memories of their loved ones, it may ease their pain."