Many died instantly. Perhaps two, maybe more, passengers on Comair 5191 had crawled out of the plane past a mound of debris and through a large opening in the cockpit. Everything was on fire.
Within eight minutes of the Sunday morning crash that killed 49, firefighters were pouring water over the plane. Three police officers were somehow maneuvering First Officer James Polehinke out of the cockpit.
By the time Gary Ginn, the Lexington-Fayette County coroner, made it onto the private property where the plane had fallen, the fires were out but they had already destroyed much of the plane and the people in it. It looked like everyone had burned to death. He said so to the media at the time. He could hardly describe what he had seen.
Yesterday, Ginn revised his statement. With the bulk of the autopsies completed, he said the leading cause of death was blunt force trauma from the crash’s initial impact. The 49 on board who died, to be sure, had varying degrees of burns on their bodies. Some were devastatingly extensive. Some were minimal, he said. But few had evidence of smoke in their lungs. They hadn’t had to suffer that.
It was the sight of the bodies that was so obviously disturbing to those who responded first to the scene. Most of the bodies appeared to be belted in, said Ginn. But from the fire’s searing heat, there was no way to know whether passengers had been wearing oxygen masks.
Lexington police Officer Bryan Jared, one of the three policemen to pull Polehinke free of the plane, suffered burns on his elbow. Yesterday, because of the National Transportation Safety Board’s admonitions, the officers who rescued Polehinke could say little else about the scene. Jared acknowledged only that “it was a traumatic event, but when you see someone who needs your help,” you help.
Officers Jon Sallee and Paul Maupin of the airport’s Department of Public Safety, like Jared, saw movement in the cockpit on first arriving at the scene and, without consulting each other, rushed to save Polehinke because they knew he was still alive.
Maupin said there was nothing that could have prepared him for this day despite his many hours of emergency crash training.
The first responders did their jobs amid a controlled chaos, said Ginn. The smell on the scene was the foul and intense odor of jet fuel mixed with that of burnt weeds.
Fire chaplain Lt. Stewart Dawson, quickly on the scene, said he checked on his fellow firefighters first, but before long was summoned to help with the families of the victims. There were tears in the eyes of the firefighters, he said, and blank stares.
“Our job is to make a difference no matter what,” he said. And it was hard to do that here.
They had been told it was a plane crash when the emergency call first came. But every time a plane is in any kind of trouble at Blue Grass Airport, the fire department is put on alert.
“Nine hundred and ninety nine times out of a thousand, it’s not that big of a deal,” said Dawson. The plane lands safely.
Lexington Mayor Teresa Isaac got to the scene within minutes, “blowing a few traffic lights on the way,” she said. She immediately felt this couldn’t be happening “in my town.” Standing in the field, “you know the pain the families will feel” and that overwhelmed every other sense, she added.
Helpless is what she remembers feeling most.
Officer Sallee remembers wanting to go home and see his family.
Assistant fire chief Chuck Fowler said he went home and talked to his wife. Police chief Anthany Beatty did the same.
Lexington firefighter Lt. Jason Shumate got home late to find his daughter waiting. She kissed him good night. And it hit him hard that it could have been his family that wasn’t lucky this day. It made him strangely grateful.
The blessing of this day, said the fire department’s Dawson, “was that the whole thing was out of the view of spectators. We like to protect people from seeing what they don’t need to see.”
What the first responders saw was plenty. Ginn explained that even before bodies could be moved, several knew Carole Bizzack, the wife of a man they all work closely with, had perished on the plane.
It made the whole thing so personal. Other familiar names were mentioned as the bodies were removed. Personal effects surrounded them. Ginn was stopped short by a woman with pretty polished fingernails. “It said she cared about her appearance and had gotten dressed up for the trip,” he said.
Then he said that his staff had been in all kinds of disaster training. What you learn, he said, is that the next thing you do when you get back to the office “is pray you never need it.”
Now he said he knows why.