Responders to the crash of Comair Flight 5191 found an apparently unconscious, badly bleeding James Polehinke hanging virtually upside down by his lap belt from the plane’s cockpit area when they arrived at the wreckage on Aug. 27.
There was no hint that anyone other than co-pilot Polehinke was alive when rescuers reached the crash site just outside Blue Grass Airport, a National Transportation Safety Board report released yesterday indicates.
The report provides dramatic new details about the rescue of Polehinke, the condition of the aircraft after the crash and the causes of death for the other 49 crash victims, who died from traumatic impact injuries, fire, smoke, or a mixture of those things.
According to interviews in the report, Lexington Police Officer Bryan Jared and Blue Grass Airport public safety officers James “Pete” Maupin and Jon Sallee found the plane engulfed in flames after driving through grass taller than their vehicles to get to the crash scene.
Jared told NTSB investigators that a male victim -- obviously Polehinke -- was “hanging down from his lapbelt in a jackknife configuration.”
Polehinke had facial injuries, mainly on the left side of his face. His cheekbones were exposed. The approximately 6’2” tall, 220-pound man did not have any shoes on and his legs were badly injured, according to the responding officers. The responders said Polehinke was “gurgling” or groaning and getting worse.
Sallee and Jared struggled to free the co-pilot from his seat belt. Polehinke’s body fell down after the belt was finally undone, but one of his legs remained trapped in the wreckage. After jerking Polehinke two or three times to free the leg, Jared and Sallee dragged the injured man away from the plane. Jared told investigators he heard several explosions in the wreckage that he thought might have come from oxygen bottles. Maupin said he took a first aid kit to the other two officers as they were trying to free Polehinke and then heard several explosions.
One of the officers tried to control Polehinke’s leg and facial bleeding with gauze, but there was too much blood.
Maupin and Jared rushed Polehinke to University of Kentucky Hospital in Maupin’s SUV, with Jared essentially sitting on top of Polehinke to stabilize his position and curb his bleeding in the back seat, while Maupin “drove like crazy.”
Polehinke had begun violently coughing up blood by the time the vehicle got to UK, running over curbs and landscaping in front of the hospital in the rush.
Sallee told investigators that more Lexington police officers arrived at the crash site and started a search for other survivors. Sallee saw the bodies of two people, whose clothes had been burned off, lying on their stomachs by a fence near the front of the plane.
Maupin said he believed that most of the fire from the crash was at the back of the plane. He said he did not hear any “discernable signs of life” from the passenger cabin and did not see any other crash victims.
Polehinke left Lexington’s Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital in mid-December after about two months there. He was taken to Cardinal Hill from UK Hospital, where his left leg was amputated and hardware was implanted in his back to stabilize it. He suffered a broken spine in the crash and has had some paralysis.
Traumatic injuries alone killed 23 of the 49 people who died in the crash, according to the NTSB, which obtained its information from official autopsy reports provided by the Fayette County coroner’s office. Among those who died of such injuries was the flight’s captain, Jeffrey Clay.
Smoke and soot inhalation was cited as the cause of death for 11 people in the crash, including crew member Kelly Heyer and C.W. Fortney II, a pilot from another airline who was catching a free ride on Flight 5191, the NTSB report indicates.
Seven passengers were killed by the intense flames of the crash alone. The passengers who died from burns were mostly seated in the middle of the cabin.
And the deaths of the remaining eight occupants of the plane were attributed to a combination of types of injuries -- each type fatal by itself.
The passenger sitting in seat 12A, near the back of the plane, was the only person who received fatal thermal injuries, fatal traumatic injuries and fatal smoke/soot inhalation.
The cause of death could be a crucial part in wrongful death lawsuits filed since the crash, with the amount of damages awarded relating directly to the amount of pain and suffering a person experienced before death. The Herald-Leader reported in September that some of the families of Flight 5191 victims were planning to hire private pathologists to perform independent autopsies. The state medical examiner’s office performed autopsies on the victims just after the crash.
The plane, which crashed just after taking off, striking a fence and several trees before stopping in a field near the airport, was destroyed by impact and fire, the report said.
The pilot’s seat frame was fragmented, burned and bent, and found about 15 feet to the left of the cockpit area. The first officer’s seat was separated in two. The charred remains of a flight attendant jumpseat were found near the seat’s normal location in the cabin. The main cabin door, although heavily damaged, was closed and in the door frame, the report said.
Passenger seats and restraint systems were severely damaged or destroyed by the impact of the crash and fire, and pieces of them were found inside and outside the plane.