Crash of Flight 5191

Nightmare began before dawn

It was too early to be good news when the telephone jarred Michael Gobb awake at his home in east Lexington about 6:15 on a Sunday morning.

The operations dispatcher at Blue Grass Airport, where Gobb is executive director, quickly told him there was an Alert Three -- a crash involving a commercial airliner. An airplane with 50 people on board had crashed during takeoff and was burning in a farm field beside the airport.

“It’s the worst news an airport manager can get,” Gobb said.

Around the time of that chilling call, airport firefighters who had driven through the field began pouring foam and water on the blazing wreckage of Comair Flight 5191, a CRJ-100. But the flames already had burned through the top of the fuselage.

It was clear this was going to be bad.

The crew of Flight 5191 -- Capt. Jeffrey Clay, 35; co-pilot James Polehinke, 44; and flight attendant Kelly Heyer, 27 -- had flown into Lexington the day before, Saturday, Aug. 26.

Clay dead-headed into Lexington as a passenger about 3:30 p.m. to stay over for his assignment. His wife, Amy, drove down from their home in Northern Kentucky with their daughters Shelby, 2, and Sarah, 3 months, to meet him for dinner with other family members.

After Amy Clay and the girls got back home that evening, she and her husband talked by phone a few times because Sarah had her first cold. He called the last time about 10 p.m. to say goodnight.

Polehinke’s mother, Miami lounge singer Honey Jackson, called his cell phone about the same time Clay was flying into Lexington. Polehinke said his schedule had gotten fouled up; he had gotten in about 2 a.m. and was laying over in town, relaxing at the hotel, and didn’t mention any plans to go out that evening, Jackson said.

“My son was in good spirits,” Jackson said. “He said, ‘I love you, Mom,’ and I said, ‘I love you, too.’”

The next morning, Aug. 27, it was a muggy 75 degrees in the pre-dawn darkness when the plane’s crew climbed aboard the hotel shuttle for the trip from downtown to the airport about 5 a.m.

“It’s usually a quiet ride that time of the morning -- just small talk,” said Jarrod Moore, the shuttle driver. At the airport, “I unloaded their stuff and told them to have a safe day.”

Clay and Polehinke checked in at the airport at 5:15 a.m. to begin preparing for a scheduled 6 a.m. flight to Atlanta. They picked up paperwork, boarded a plane and turned on the auxiliary power unit to begin pre-flight checks.

It was the wrong plane. A ramp worker saw their mistake and told the pilots, who got on the correct plane.

Their pre-flight checks involved a number of tasks: checking the plane’s operating systems; getting information on the weather, the assigned runway and notices about airport conditions such as guidance lights that aren’t working; and reviewing data such as the fuel load and number of passengers, which goes into calculating the takeoff speed.

The procedure is a matter of routine for experienced pilots such as Clay, who had 4,700 hours in the air, and Polehinke, with 5,424. As they went through the checklist, Heyer came on to prepare for boarding; the 47 passengers started filing on at 5:42 a.m.

Around 6 a.m., the flight was ready to roll with a full load of passengers headed for connections to flights around the country.

A young couple married less than 12 hours, going to California for their honeymoon. A 16-year-old riding enthusiast who had been in Lexington to look at horses. A grandmother traveling to see her grandchildren. People headed for vacations, business meetings, home.

The lone air traffic controller on duty cleared Flight 5191 to taxi to Runway 22 and, as Clay guided the plane past the tower, cleared the flight to take off. Then he turned around to catch up on paperwork.

It would be a rolling start, with no stop between taxiing and rolling down the runway.

In less than 30 seconds, it would be horribly apparent that something was wrong.

Instead of turning onto Runway 22, 7,000 feet long and with a fresh layer of blacktop, the plane turned onto Runway 26. That runway is only 3,500 feet long and unlit; it’s to be used only by smaller, propeller-driven planes.

The manufacturer said that at a weight of more than 24 tons, the plane needed 3,744 feet of runway and a speed of 138 knots -- almost 160 mph -- before Polehinke, who was at the controls, could pull back on the yoke and begin to lift the nose in the air. That’s called rotation.

The aircraft would have needed extra distance to fully lift off.

The plane reached a top speed of 137 knots. Clay called for Polehinke to begin lifting the nose, but the plane hit an earthen berm 265 feet past the end of the runway.

It went airborne, but not much, clipping an 8-foot fence on the airport boundary. A witness on the nearby farm described what must have been a desperate attempt to get the plane up as the tail dragged the ground, but it hit some trees, crashing down at 6:07 a.m. and exploding in intense flames.

Did the pilots realize at some point they were on the wrong runway and decide to go for takeoff, perhaps because they were past the point of safely aborting? Or did Clay call for rotation because the plane had reached the designated speed, and the pilots didn’t realize they were in the wrong place until they ran off the runway?

Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said last week she couldn’t answer that.

Rescuers arrived a few minutes after the crash to the smoke and stench of burning jet fuel, rubber and underbrush in the rough field. The scene looked so awful that they were surprised to see Polehinke move in the shattered cockpit.

Lexington police Officer Bryan Jared and airport police Officers James Maupin and Jon Sallee rushed to help the co-pilot as the back of the plane burned.

“You are worried about your safety, and you wouldn’t be human otherwise,” Jared said later in an interview on CNN. “But when you see somebody ... that needs your help, you just kind of fight through all your emotions and your thoughts, and kind of just try to put it in the back of your head, try to get in there, and try to render aid to somebody that can use it.”

Polehinke needed help. He coughed and spit up blood as the officers worked to get him out.

Police and fire officials blocked four-lane Versailles Road as a staging area for the rescue effort, and alerted hospitals to be ready for mass casualties.

At the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, supervisors held over night-shift staffers as the day shift came on, doubling the number of caregivers available, and called in others. The staff scrambled to move all stable patients out of the emergency room to make way for critically injured passengers, and set up an area outside to evaluate patients as they came in.

“You always have a sense of dread when you find out there are multiple victims,” said Dr. Roger Humphries, chair of the department of emergency medicine at UK.

But only one ambulance would rush away from the crash site, taking Polehinke to UK. The 47 passengers and two other crew members were dead, many from the crushing impact, some from smoke inhalation.

Sarah Fortney, the wife of passenger C.W. Fortney II, said investigators told her two passengers were moving around the cabin after the crash; it appeared they were trying to help others escape the inferno.

If C.W. Fortney survived the impact, “He would have been the first to help people out,” Fortney said of her husband, a pilot who had been catching a ride to work.

The ambulance got Polehinke to UK about 7 a.m. He was in severe shock from blood loss, and had a collapsed lung and fractures to his face, spine, pelvis, breastbone, ribs, left leg, right foot and right thumb, said his attending physician, Dr. Andrew Bernard.

Care teams swung into action with practiced efficiency, first making sure Polehinke could breathe and then working to stop his bleeding. Radiologists injected clotting foam, and trauma orthopedic surgeons operated to begin repairing broken bones.

“Our staff did a really fantastic job of responding,” said Penne Allison, director of emergency and trauma services at UK.

It would take a massive transfusion of blood and blood products, such as platelets and plasma, from 96 people to get Polehinke’s bleeding under control. By the end of the day, it still wasn’t clear he would survive.

At the crash site, work shifted from rescue to recovery, and as the day wore on, families and friends around Central, Southern and Eastern Kentucky began getting the worst call they could imagine.

Kathy Ryan went straight to the airport after hearing news of an early-morning crash. Her husband, Michael, was on a pre-dawn flight. When she arrived, Kathy still didn’t know which plane had crashed, or where her husband was.

At first, she couldn’t get that horrible question answered.

“The sheriff’s deputy stood with me with his hand on my back when I very sternly challenged the airline worker -- I don’t know whether he was Delta or Comair,” Ryan said. “I demanded to know whether or not my husband was on that plane. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t tell me that one thing.”

She found out later that he was.

“I can almost guarantee that every one of us knows someone or has worked with someone who was on that plane. That is what makes it hurt so much,” said Ray Garman, a former member of the Blue Grass Airport board.

Officials arranged for the Crowne Plaza Campbell House to serve as a care center for victims’ relatives; the parking lot was full by noon. Many came in hoping against hope and left in tears.

“There have been a lot of prayers,” said Gerry van der Meer, general manager at the hotel.

As federal investigators arrived to begin figuring out what caused the worst disaster in modern Lexington history, and the media converged to cover the nation’s worst air crash in almost five years, coroners began working about 2 p.m. to remove charred bodies from the wreckage and placed them in large disaster pouches.

“The conditions we were working under were just horrible,” said Mike Wilder of Boyle County, no stranger to dealing with death after 30 years as a coroner.

Chaplains said a prayer over each body as coroners loaded the victims into vans.

That evening, the keening of sirens interrupted the service at South Elkhorn Baptist Church, which is near the airport, time after time.

“Every time you hear a siren, you know another body is headed to the morgue,” said Pastor Damon Jones.

The week since has passed in a blur of grief and questions.

Wednesday, as buses took victims’ families to see the crash site, employees of Southland Christian Church lined the route with signs showing support, and Carolyn Figg, who attended a prayer service, captured the community’s sadness: “There’s just such an empty feeling in my heart.”

The biggest question is how could the experienced pilots of Flight 5191 -- described by their families as dedicated and conscientious -- turn onto the wrong runway at a relatively small airport that has only two?

Some pilots have told the Herald-Leader that the layout of taxiways and runways at the airport can be confusing. There have been other cases in which pilots mistakenly lined up for takeoff on the smaller Runway 26, but they or air-traffic controllers caught the mistake and averted disaster.

Clay and Polehinke also hadn’t flown into the airport since the runway approach had been changed during a repaving project. It was dark, and the centerline lights on the longer runway were out because of the construction -- eliminating a potential clue that Flight 5191 was on the wrong runway.

Other pilots have said they don’t find the airport confusing.

And pilots and safety experts said there are a number of safeguards to make sure pilots get on the right runway, including signs and markings; runway lighting (the side lights on 22 were on, even though the center lights were not); airport diagrams; instructions from controllers; and a compass in the cockpit that shows pilots whether their heading corresponds to the runway number.

It could take a year for the NTSB to rule on the cause of the crash. Investigators will examine a wide range of issues, including whether pilot fatigue or inattention played a role; whether having a second controller in the tower -- as the FAA had directed, but not enforced -- would have helped; whether the plane had any mechanical or instrument problems; and signs and lighting at the airport.

As the week wore on, Polehinke’s condition was upgraded to serious. His doctor said he is optimistic about Polehinke’s chance of survival, though he’ll never be the same after the physical trauma.

The sole survivor of Flight 5191, the man who was at the controls during the tragic attempt to get it aloft, could provide crucial information in the investigation.

“Maybe that’s why he lived,” said Polehinke’s mother. “So he could tell the truth.”

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