Comair 5191 never made it much beyond the moist green earth from which it had broken free.
An hour before sunrise in clearing weather, the airplane with 50 souls aboard ran out of runway. The Atlanta-bound plane lasted less than a minute aloft before falling a mile west of the airport, casting 50,000 pounds of debris and jet fuel about as it all burned mercilessly to a halt.
Forty-nine people on board were killed.
Immediately, the early-morning quiet enveloping Blue Grass Airport was no more.
Around 6:15 a.m., local hospitals were told to gather their staffs and to be ready for multiple trauma victims. Versailles Road became an emergency staging ground. Three police officers pulled a single man, the plane’s first officer, barely alive, from the plane.
And the realization hit that Nick Bentley’s farm had become both a crash site and sacred ground.
Sacred to us all, for the dead were familiar. Newlyweds, eager to start their honeymoon. Another couple on their way to be married. A well-known living saint. A University of Kentucky dean. A member of the family of Lexington’s most prominent philanthropist.
As Lexington Mayor Teresa Isaac said, “We don’t just sympathize with the families and friends of the victims; we are the families and friends of the victims.”
Attention quickly focused on whether the plane had taken off from the wrong and disastrously shorter of the airport’s two runways. The airport’s 8-foot-tall fence was torn down just feet from the end of the pavement, the trees beyond it were sheared and a tumble of char rested in forest rubble short of the farm’s outbuildings.
Later in the evening, National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman confirmed only that preliminary information obtained from on-board recorders and on-site inspection indicates that the Comair plane took off from Runway 26, the one described by airport officials as too short to accommodate the takeoff requirements of the midsized plane.
Of the two runways at Blue Grass Airport, the main is 7,001 feet with 600 feet of safety area on each end. The general aviation runway is 3,500 feet. The main runway was completely repaved last weekend. The only construction last week on the smaller runway was to tie it in to the main runway, according to airport officials.
The short runway, according to airport officials, is not used except in daylight hours and is not equipped with lights.
Worst air disaster here
Flight 5191 took off at 6:05 a.m., in the dark with the only eastern light obscured by rain clouds. The drizzle had passed. It was an unspectacular 75 degrees out. The airport was unbustled by the hour and the weekend schedule.
It was the worst commercial air disaster in Lexington, and it ends one of the safest periods in U.S. aviation history, a period that began after the Nov. 12, 2001, crash of a full American Airlines jet into a Queens, N.Y. neighborhood.
The Comair crash was not visible from any Lexington roadway, the dead still inside the plane, which was mostly intact on the ground. Only one ambulance left the scene, carrying the plane’s only survivor, James Polehinke, the 44-year-old first officer, to the University of Kentucky Hospital. UK spokesman Jay Blanton confirmed that Polehinke was in surgery for much of the day. He was in critical condition last night.
Polehinke was pulled from the plane’s wreckage by airport police officers Pete Maupin and John Sallee, and Lexington police officer Bryan Jared.
Pilot Jeffrey Clay, 35, of Burlington, perished along with the plane’s sole flight attendant, Kelly Heyer, 28, of Cincinnati. They were immediately identified by Comair, which would not release the full passenger list until it was satisfied all family notification had taken place.
Still, Lexington hospitals were quickly told to expect no one else and to send their doctors home. Unaware of that, Sunday sermons in churches were changed so that whole congregations could send pleas to heaven for the safety and deliverance of the plane’s passengers.
Assured by Lexington police chief Anthany Beatty that the FBI had ruled out terrorism, the airport reopened at 9 a.m. so that American air travel could continue apace.
At 10:20, rescue workers bowed their heads at the scene in silent and private tribute to the dead. A chaplain said a few words in the freshly scraped field.
Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said at the scene that most of the dead had probably died from the fire within the plane and had probably not succumbed to smoke inhalation.
Airport officials tried to comfort family members of those presumed dead. Moved from the airport to the Crowne Plaza Campbell House, the devastated waited for two hours only to be told that 49 of the 50 had not survived.
Family members said the city and the airline could have done more to let them know what was going on.
Echoing the sentiment of other family members, Rick Queen of Lexington said he was very upset with the impersonal and brief nature of the response by Comair and the city of Lexington. Queen’s father-in-law, Leslie Morris, was on the flight.
“They just brought us all into a room like a herd of cattle,” Queen said.
A Comair official stood up and told them there had been no survivors and gave a toll-free number to call. That was it, Queen said.
On the scene at the Campbell House, 15 sheriff’s department deputies were assigned the task of assisting the bereaved. The Campbell House, as well, responded with offers of 200 rooms.
Most likely from Lexington
But by late morning, there was little to do except help with death notification.
It is likely, said Ray Garman, former airport board member, that because of the day and the hour of the flight, most of the passengers were from Lexington.
“I can almost guarantee that every one of us knows someone, or has worked with someone, who was on that plane,” Garman said. “That is what makes it hurts so much.”
Some waiting passengers in the airport terminal at that early hour were initially told to go home, but three hours after the crash, the airport reopened. Versailles Road reopened.
By noon, the National Transportation Safety Board’s team of calamity experts viewed the six-hour-old ruin. They would not speculate beyond the acknowledgement about the mistaken use of Runway 26, instead of Runway 22, the one on which commercial airliners usually take off.
With crews working until dark, the bodies were taken, one, maybe two at time, to the State Central Laboratory in Frankfort. Many of the state’s coroners had made their way to Frankfort to help in the grisly work that may require dental records and DNA samplings to determine identification. The remaining victims would be moved Monday morning.
Determination of the cause of the crash awaits the NTSB’s lengthy investigation and analysis.
The investigation will look at anything that could have contributed to the crash, including the pilot, aircraft and airport, where the runway resurfacing occurred, said Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.
Definitive word on the crash may not come for months.
In the meantime, days of burials and sadness await.