Crash of Flight 5191

Looking beyond the sorrow

So many numbers, none adding up.

Flight 5191. Runway 22 or 26.

One wrong turn and 49 people dead.

But why?

Tragedy never makes sense. Last Sunday the people of Lexington discovered it makes even less sense up close. Just before dawn a Comair jet needing 5,000 feet to get safely off the ground turned onto the 3,500-foot Runway 26 and attempted a takeoff that ended in a fiery crash, killing all but one of the people on board.

Of the many questions that followed, the most wrenching for Lexingtonians was the first:

Was anyone I know on that plane?

In a town like Lexington you have to think so, Keith Madison says. So, on Sunday morning, as he drove with his wife to church after hearing about the crash on the radio while shaving, he figured worse news was in store.

At church, the Madisons and their fellow parishioners said a prayer for Flight 5191.

What happened on a farm west of downtown Lexington couldn’t have been more at odds with the normal rhythms of the city where I grew up. Few things are as peaceful as a Sunday morning in Fayette County or as idyllic as the scenery along Versailles Road near Keeneland Race Course.

All that was shattered by the worst American plane crash since 2001, a communal event of historic proportions in Lexington, a town of 260,000.

Ordinarily a takeoff from this small, two-runway airport surrounded by horse country can be uncommonly serene as airline travel goes. In July, I flew out of Lexington back to San Antonio after going home for the first time in years. I looked down wistfully at the picturesque landscape: the red roofs of Calumet Farm, the blue-green grass, the white fences. God, I missed this place.

As my plane angled into the sky off Runway 22, I grew quiet and reflective, as I do almost every time I fly.

So I wonder now: What was going on in the minds of those on Flight 5191? Surrounded by darkness, with a light rain streaming down the windows of the plane as it taxied toward the runway, some passengers probably laid their heads back.

Others, such as the newlyweds married less than 12 hours earlier, might have been too wired.

The outdoor wedding ceremony of Jonathan Hooker and Scarlett Parsley the evening before had included a hymn called It Is Well with My Soul -- its lyrics written by a 19th-century businessman named Horatio Gates Spafford after he and his wife lost their four daughters in a shipwreck.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,When sorrows like sea billows roll;Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Among those at the wedding was Madison, the retired head baseball coach at the University of Kentucky. Hooker had played at UK under Madison from 1998 to 2001. “Hook” was a relief pitcher, a closer with a split-finger fastball that darted like a minnow and carried him to a brief minor league career. Now all those box scores were behind him, life’s joys having become harder to quantify but potentially much greater.

At 6:30 p.m. the ceremony started. The hot, hazy day was cooling, and a light breeze blew.

Hooker and Parsley, who had grown up together in London, Ky., exchanged vows in the shade of 100-year-old oak and ash trees and listened to a toast about never going to bed mad -- something Madison couldn’t imagine happening, the way Jon and Scarlett were grinning at each other.

And then, 12 hours later, the death and parting they had mentioned, probably without thinking as they said their vows, was upon them, reducing them to statistics.

It’s funny about numbers: They’re at once exact and abstract. As statistics, people cease to seem real. It isn’t clear who loved whom or why or for how long or whether any of that even matters anymore.

In an age of war and hurricanes and terrorism, death’s score desensitizes us until a plane wobbles off Runway 26 and explodes in our own back yard. And then we know.

Late last Sunday morning, Madison finally got the news he half expected: He did know somebody on the plane. An old teammate of Hooker’s called the coach on his cell phone as Madison was sitting down to lunch at home with his wife. Madison could hear the anguish coming over the phone. Hooker had been one of his most popular players, invariably the first out of the dugout to congratulate teammates crossing the plate with a run. The mourning had begun.

But by then newer crises were supplanting the crash in the national news. Within hours the Lexington tragedy was one-upped on Internet sites by a death toll from Iraq: 50 people killed.

And then some national news outlets stopped mentioning the crash altogether, Madison noted.

“It was all Katrina and JonBenet,” he said. “It was like they had moved on to a different story. But people here in Lexington were still grieving.”

My hometown had a broken heart. So did I. Once the life stories of victims began to surface, rescuing them from being a mere statistic, I began to feel the grief long-distance.

Looking at a photo of Hooker with his ruddy cheeks and Cupid’s-bow mouth, I felt sad for the death of a man I’d never known.

I thought about the boyhood dreams Hooker had abandoned on an obscure ball field and the doomed love he had sealed with a kiss beneath his bride’s veil. His marriage didn’t last long enough for him to see sunrise with his wife. What of that survives?

I wondered as I sat with my wife and our two boys in an ice cream parlor Sunday -- a day all those people in Lexington never would finish. The gooey smiles of my sons would stick in my memory, which is the way it should be. What we hold in our hearts is forever.

We keep those on Flight 5191 alive by walking through the wonderful, messy world they departed -- choosing day by day to be defined not by numbers but by moments: eating ice cream on a summer evening; bringing a fastball high and hard; dancing the first dance of the rest of our lives in the fading August light.

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