In addition to departing from the wrong runway and initially getting on the wrong plane, one of the pilots on Comair Flight 5191 to Atlanta might have made a third mistake:
In talking to the control tower before the fatal crash, one of the pilots called out the wrong flight number and city, saying “Toledo,” according to two victims’ relatives who attended briefings by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Charlie Scales, the brother-in-law of Flight 5191 passenger Gregory Threet of Lexington, and Kyra Frederick, wife of passenger Bart Frederick of Danville, said they learned of the apparent mistake last week in NTSB briefings in Lexington.
Forty-nine people died Aug. 27 when Flight 5191 crashed after attempting to take off from the wrong runway at Blue Grass Airport.
Scales, who lives in Ohio, said NTSB officials told families that the “Toledo” error occurred when the pilots were “initiating takeoff.”
Scales said NTSB officials did not identify which pilot misspoke.
Frederick said families were told in a briefing that the pilot quickly corrected the “Toledo” mistake and gave the correct flight number. Frederick said she was unclear whether the pilot was misidentifying Lexington or the plane’s destination city, Atlanta.
“It was a series of mistakes,” she said. “That was all the beginning of a bad flight.”
Capt. Jeffrey Clay, who guided the plane onto the runway, died in the crash. The lone survivor, first officer James Polehinke, who was at the controls when the flight took off, remains in serious condition at the University of Kentucky Medical Center.
NTSB officials did not return two telephone calls yesterday.
Michael Gobb, executive director of Blue Grass Airport, said he could not comment on whether the pilots mistakenly referred to Toledo. He referred the question to the NTSB.
It is not clear whether either pilot had a connection to Toledo, a city in northwest Ohio. NTSB officials said earlier that Polehinke had flown from New York City to Lexington more than 24 hours before Flight 5191 was scheduled to depart.
Clay arrived in Lexington on the afternoon before the crash. In an earlier interview, Clay’s wife, Amy, said she did not know what city he was in before he boarded a flight for Lexington.
What is known is that Clay and Polehinke checked in at the airport at 5:15 a.m. Aug. 27 to begin preparing for the scheduled 6 a.m. flight to Atlanta. They picked up paperwork, boarded a plane and turned on the auxiliary power unit to begin pre-flight checks.
But it was the wrong plane. A ramp worker saw their mistake and told the pilots, who got on the correct plane.
Kyra Frederick said she has at least one other key question about the crash that hasn’t been answered to her satisfaction. She said her husband had been scheduled to fly from Lexington to Atlanta the night before the crash, but that flight was canceled.
She said she has not been able to find out why the flight was canceled, or whether that aircraft was the same one that crashed the next day.
Jennifer Spalding, spokeswoman for Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., said the representative had a 30-minute briefing in his office yesterday from NTSB officials. But the officials revealed nothing new about the crash, she said, and nothing about what the families say they were told.
“We heard nothing about Toledo or a wrong flight number,” Spalding said. “I guess we didn’t ask questions about that, but they didn’t volunteer it.”
After the briefing, Chandler released a statement that said:
“I remain convinced that it is premature to speculate upon any cause of this accident. While some facts are clear, such as the departure from the incorrect runway, what remains to be done is the analysis of those and other facts.”
“It is imperative that the NTSB be allowed to complete their investigation so they can help us understand what caused this accident,” Chandler said.
Also yesterday, more post-crash details emerged from an audio recording of radio traffic between Lexington police and dispatchers in the first hour after the accident.
Officers realized the seriousness of James Polehinke’s injuries right away, the recording shows.
“I just pulled the pilot out of the front,” police Officer Bryan Jared radioed to the dispatcher. “He’s seriously injured. Serious facial injuries. I need somebody up here.”
The dispatcher then tells Jared that police have notified the fire department, as well as “all local hospitals.”
Several minutes later, Jared tells a dispatcher that he is on his way to the University of Kentucky Hospital with Polehinke. “Please have them meet us out front,” Jared said. “It’s critical here.”
About 30 police officers responded to the scene within minutes after the dispatcher first reported a “possible plane crash.”
“We’ve got a lot of smoke out here,” one officer said as he approached the scene and began searching a private farm for the downed plane.
After finding the crash site, another officer informed others that it was difficult to reach. “Literally, you’re going to have to four-wheel through the field to get to it,” the officer told the dispatcher.
As officers began arriving, at first they thought they might be dealing with more than one survivor.
One officer urgently told the dispatcher: “We’ve got numerous injured subjects.” At one point all officers were ordered to put “their reflective vests on to make them more visible to firefighters and potential survivors.”
Some officers were ordered to set up a triage area in the grass, and some were directed to the airport terminal to help the families of passengers. Others were directed to gather reporters who were starting to arrive at the crash scene.
Listen, later today, to recordings of the police dispatch traffic after Flight 5191 crashed.
Special seating and parking will be provided to the families of victims of Flight 5191 at a memorial service on Sunday in Rupp Arena. For more information, those families should call 258-3116 or 258-3111, or after business hours 576-7734. The service begins at 6 p.m.; doors open at 5 p.m.