Crash of Flight 5191

Mother watched daughter boarding; she had planned to be on same flight

Joan Winters didn’t hug her daughter before the girl boarded Comair Flight 5191.

“I still have second thoughts about not hugging her,” Winters said yesterday in a telephone interview.

Winters was supposed to be on the flight with her daughter, Paige Winters, and horse riding trainer Thomas Fahey.

But early Sunday morning, the airline had moved Winters to a later flight. So she walked her 16-year-old daughter and Fahey to the gate and watched the two get on the plane.

“In my mind, I was going to see her again in four hours,” Winters said.

She didn’t. Paige and Fahey were among the 49 people who died when Flight 5191 took off from the wrong runway, crashed into a field and exploded.

The three had come to Lexington on Friday to pick out a new horse for Paige, who competed as a junior hunter. By Saturday afternoon, they had settled on Devon, a 5-year-old thoroughbred. All that remained to complete the sale was the approval of the Winterses’ vet in Kansas and the transfer of money.

Paige had her saddle with her, as a carry-on to shove under the seat. She wore flip-flops, a little jean skirt and jacket with ribbons and sequins.

She and Fahey were excited: They had emergency exit-row seats -- extra legroom -- and would have time for coffee in the Atlanta airport.

Paige was eager to return to Leawood, Kan., Joan Winters said. A junior in high school, she had just discovered boys. She had a dress to buy for homecoming. She wanted to see her friends and planned to have them over that afternoon.

Watching her daughter and Fahey leave, Joan Winters was jealous.

“They would go to the Atlanta airport, and they would get to have Starbucks,” Winters said.

That morning, Joan Winters had tried to get back on Flight 5191. But Comair representatives told her, there wasn’t room for her on the second leg of their trip, from Atlanta to Kansas City.

She tried to get her daughter and Fahey on her flights, which went through Cincinnati, but that didn’t work either.

So Joan Winters walked her daughter and Fahey to the gate. After they left, she sat down to wait for her flight, which was supposed to leave from the same gate. Within 15 minutes, she got up to get a Dr Pepper and granola bar.

When Winters returned to the gate, a plane was there, and she assumed that Fahey and Paige’s flight hadn’t left the airport. Soon afterwards, an airport employee announced that the airport was closed for the day, and everyone needed to go back to the ticket counters. The woman didn’t say why.

Winters told the woman that her daughter was on the plane on the tarmac and asked if she could wait for her. The woman told Winters, she was sorry but she didn’t have any information, Winters said.

Winters called her husband, Kevin, who suggested she rent a car and drive the three of them back. At the Hertz car rental, she asked the person helping her what had happened. All the woman knew was what she had seen driving into work: Emergency vehicles and a bright light in the sky.

Winters tried to call Paige and Fahey on their cell phones, but they didn’t answer. She called again and again.

“Then it kind of hit me, that I maybe should be worried, because I don’t know what’s going on and nobody knows anything to tell me,” Joan Winters said.

Airline employees brought her to a conference room. Chaplains and others joined her. The chaplains were supportive, but they couldn’t tell her what had happened.

“They told me that they hadn’t been told anything,” Joan Winters said.

Back in Leawood, as soon as Joan told him about the airport closure, Kevin Winters checked CNN and Fox News. He thought there might have been a terrorist threat or attack, he said.

He went online, looking at Lexington newspaper and television Web sites. Finally he found one sentence on a television Web site: A Comair plane had crashed.

The updates were worse. A plane crash with casualties, then significant casualties, then 49 out of 50 were dead.

“I couldn’t be there to hug my wife, to hold her,” Kevin Winters said. “But at the same time, she was going to find out.”

He started preparing Joan for the worst.

By the time Comair officials announced to family members in Lexington that only one person had survived the crash, Joan Winters had realized that her daughter was dead.

On Sunday night, Winters returned to Kansas City on a private flight. Two nights later, Paige’s high school, Shawnee Mission East, held a memorial celebration of her life, and more than 1,000 people came.

Since Sunday, Winters has talked about Paige as much as she can. When she talks about her daughter, she said, she feels as though she’s still with her.

“I would have taken her place in a second,” she said, “because she had so many things left to do.”

The family has set up a foundation in Paige’s name. Contributions can be sent to the Paige Winters Foundation, care of Country Club Bank, 9400 Mission Road, Prairie Village, Kan., 66206.

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