Sitting on the beach near her Sunny Isles, Fla., home on Saturday, Honey Jackson picked up her cell phone to call her son, pilot James Polehinke who lives nearby.
She was surprised to hear him say he was in Lexington, and that he had been called in to fly the next morning even though he wasn’t scheduled.
“I’m not supposed to be flying,” Polehinke told her.
Jackson woke up the next morning with a sick sense of dread -- the TV news and urgent calls soon told her why: Polehinke was the first officer on Comair Flight 5191 to Atlanta, and he was the sole survivor of a crash in Lexington that killed 49 people.
Yesterday, Jackson said her son is “very near death” at the University of Kentucky Chandler hospital with severe injuries. Last night, his physician Dr. Andrew Bernard said Polehinke has emerged from a medically induced coma. He is not completely conscious but can follow simple commands. Still, the doctor said, Polehinke, 44, is critically ill and paralysis is a possibility.
Jackson is concerned about speculation that pilot error caused the crash: “My son is not responsible for this crash. He’s a dedicated pilot. He was in good condition” when he boarded the flight.
On Monday, Amy Clay, wife of the plane’s pilot, Capt. Jeffrey Clay who died in the crash, also told the Herald-Leader that her husband was an exemplary pilot whose actions did not cause the crash in any way.
At a briefing yesterday afternoon, National Transportation Safety Board spokeswoman Debbie Hersman clarified who was at the plane’s controls and when. Hersman said Clay, 35, drove the plane from the gate and positioned it on the shorter runway before handing the controls to Polehinke for takeoff.
Hersman indicated that both pilots had ample time to rest before the flight. Clay and Polehinke had arrived in Lexington the day before, she said, with Polehinke arriving first on a flight from Kennedy Airport in New York at 2 a.m. Saturday. Clay arrived in Lexington at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Hersman also said the two pilots had much experience flying to and from Blue Grass Airport. Polehinke had flown in and out of Blue Grass Airport 10 times and Clay six times in the past two years.
However, neither Clay nor Polehinke had flown from Lexington since the airport’s two runways were repaved and painted two weekends ago, Hersman said.
Polehinke had last flown out of Lexington in May, and Clay had flown from the airport in June, she said.
In her briefing, Hersman described an uneventful morning for the Comair pilots before their scheduled Sunday departure. She said there was no evidence of alcohol use by either pilot.
According to an interview with a ramp worker, Hersman said, the two men checked in at 5:15 a.m., picked up paperwork and boarded what turned out to be the wrong aircraft.
They then boarded the correct aircraft and began routine checks.
Polehinke’s mother said her family talked to one of her son’s rescuers at the hospital who gave a version of what happened after the crash: The rescuer saw Polehinke slumped over in his seat in the cockpit and thought he was dead. The rescuer, whose name she couldn’t recall, checked for a pulse. Polehinke coughed and “blood came out of his mouth,” his mother said the rescuer told her.
Lexington police officer Bryan Jared, and officers Jon Sallee and Paul Maupin of the airport’s Department of Public Safety are all credited with pulling Polehinke from the wreckage.
On life support
Bernard said Polehinke is more stable than when he arrived at the UK Hospital on Sunday in severe shock and requiring 40 pints of blood, his doctor said. Polehinke underwent surgery Sunday and yesterday to stabilize his bone fractures and to clean his wounds. He remains on life support and has a collapsed lung.
He was not burned in the crash and does not have a severe brain injury, Bernard said. Earlier, doctors were considering amputating his left leg, but Bernard said yesterday that the leg was repaired in surgery and there are “no immediate plans” for amputation. Polehinke has fractures in his face, spine, pelvis, right foot, right hand, ribs and breastbone, Bernard said. Another surgery on his left leg is scheduled for Thursday.
“It’s difficult to say if he will survive,” Bernard said.
Bernard read a statement from Polehinke’s family at a news conference last night that applauded “the heroic efforts” of the rescuers and the kindness of the Lexington community. The family also thanked the staff of UK Chandler Hospital and the staff of the Delta/Comair Care Team.
“Our thoughts continue to be with the families of the passengers and crew members affected by this tragedy. We know that if he were able to, Jimmy would join us in telling them that they are in our constant prayers,” their statement said.
Jackson said the news on her son’s condition changes minute by minute.
“My son is broken in a million pieces. He may never be the same mentally or physically,” said Jackson. “This is surreal. It’s a nightmare.”
Jackson said she had returned to Florida from Lexington on Monday to care for her son’s dogs, which he thinks of as his “babies.”
She said Polehinke’s wife, Ida Askew, remains at his side at UK hospital, talking to him and holding his hand.
“The doctors say he hears us,” Jackson said. “He’s going to get better. We will fight for him all the way.”
Became a pilot in his 30s
Polehinke graduated from East Meadow High School on Long Island, New York, in 1980, school officials confirmed yesterday. He wanted to become a pilot then, Jackson said, but instead entered the Navy. Jackson said she remembered well when her son came to her in his early 30s and said he wanted to go to school to become a pilot.
“His dream in life was to be a pilot,” said his mother, whose legal name is Ellen Pleva. She goes by Honey Jackson as a singer and in her private life.
Before coming to Comair in 2002, Polehinke spent five years flying short-range twin-engine planes for Florida-based Gulfstream International Airlines. As at Comair, Polehinke did not have a history of problems, Gulfstream director of operations Tom Herfort told the Associated Press.
Jackson said Polehinke never gave her any problems as a son, either. She said that she will fight for him during the investigation of the crash and “will turn over every stone to see what happened.”
Jackson said she had concerns about the reported lack of lights on the runway and about what happened in the control tower before the crash.
“The truth will come out,” she said. “Maybe that’s why he lived, so he could tell the truth.”