Kevin Mink was eating pancakes with a Lexington police officer when Comair Flight 5191 crashed in a farm field near the Bluegrass airport.
“When the call came through they said, ‘A plane just went down and there was an explosion,’” Mink said. “We just looked at each other and said, ‘Oh my gosh.’”
Mink -- a Berea firefighter who is thinking about becoming a police officer -- was riding along with Officer Randall Combs to learn more about the job. He didn’t expect to use his fire skills the morning of Aug. 27 or to be involved in the worst aviation accident in the United States in almost five years.
Last night at the third annual Lexington police awards banquet, Mink was honored for his work and courage during the crash. He received the highest honor a citizen can receive from the police department -- the Chief’s Medal. Mink -- who is the first to receive the Chief’s Medal award -- was one of more than 130 citizens, police officers, firefighters and government officials to be recognized at last night’s banquet.
Mink struggled to put into words the events of the August morning, when Comair Flight 5191 mistakenly took off from a runway that was too short and crashed moments later, killing 49 of the 50 people aboard. The sole survivor, co-pilot James M. Polehinke, was pulled from the crash and rushed to the hospital before Mink arrived.
Mostly, Mink said, he remembers the shooting flames and thick smoke and the overwhelming smell of burning fuel.
“I was scared. It was the worst thing I have ever seen,” he said.
Thinking there could be other survivors, Mink pushed through his fears and ran to help firefighters put out the fire, while other rescue workers looked for survivors. But a sinking quietness settled in when Mink and others on the scene realized that all the passengers were dead, he said.
“It did make me think about how it could have been anybody,” Mink said. “All I know is everybody I worked with there did a wonderful job. I would work with them again in any situation.”
Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board and keynote speaker at last night’s awards ceremony, echoed Mink’s feelings.
The Lexington community got to know Hersman well, as she gave updates on NTSB’s investigation. What many might not have known is that her husband grew up in Lexington.
“News of an accident is never easy to hear, even when you are used to hearing about accidents. But when the worst civil aviation accident in five years involves a community that is dear to you -- that hits a little bit closer to your heart,” Hersman said.
She said the Lexington crash scene was managed more professionally than any of the seven major transportation accidents she has responded to. Particularly, she pointed to the rescue of Polehinke, who was pulled form the crash by Lexington police officer Bryan Jared and two airport officers, James Maupin and Jon Sallee, and rushed to the hospital in a sport-utility vehicle.
Hersman went on to describe the support of others, including American Red Cross officials who dispensed water to workers, as well as business owners who donated gloves, ropes and other supplies.
“One of the first things I noticed at the accident site was the obvious commitment exhibited by the many responders and investigators. In all of them there was a quiet confidence that they would do ... the job that they were trained to do and that they would do it as part of a cooperative effort for the good of the community,” Hersman said. “We go to a lot of accident scenes and we don’t always see this.”