49 dead after Comair regional jet crashes in Kentucky

Monday, August 28, 2006

File Photo of a Comair CRJ200 regional jet

A Comair commuter jet crashed on takeoff from Lexington, Kentucky yesterday, killing 49 people on board and seriously injuring the plane's first officer, James M. Polehinke.

The early-morning Flight 5191 was operating as Delta Connection and was headed from Lexington's Blue Grass Airport to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. It crashed about a mile west of the airport at 6:07 a.m. Eastern Time. The plane was a Canadair Regional Jet CRJ-100.

The crash site.

Polehinke was taken to the University of Kentucky's Chandler Medical Center, where he was listed in critical condition. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the aircraft departed from a shorter runway than it was cleared to take off from.

According to Gary Ginn, the Fayette County coroner, there was a significant fire on board the aircraft after impact, after which it continued to move forward several hundred yards before coming to a stop. The aircraft, however, is largely intact, Ginn said, and most of the passengers remained inside the cabin. Ginn said he expects the cause of death to be fire for the majority of the victims. The tail number has been confirmed as N431CA.

Based on information recovered from the flight's data recorder and physical evidence on the scene, the National Transportation Safety Board is focusing on the theory that the pilot attempted to take off from a 3,500-foot or 1067-meter runway that is not certified for airline traffic. That runway is only for general aviation aircraft.

The runways at Blue Grass Airport.

Investigators believe the plane did not get enough speed to lift off the ground before running out of runway. Air traffic controllers in the tower had cleared the flight for takeoff from an adjacent 7,000-foot or 2135-meter runway used for commercial airlines.

Local police and fire fighters responded to the scene within minutes, and it has been reported that two off-duty police officers helped pull Polehinke from the cockpit of the burning jet.

Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration told CNN that there is no indication that terrorism was involved in connection with the crash.

Family members and friends who suspected that their loved ones may have been on Flight 5191 began arriving at Blue Grass Airport shortly after the crash. They have been taken to a local hotel, where staff from Comair as well as airport officials are caring for them and providing them with information. Comair has also set up a hotline where family and friends can receive information: the number is 1-800-801-0088.

Among the dead were Jon Hooker and Scarlett Parsley, who had married just the night before and were off to their honeymoon.

A moment of silence was held for the crash victims before the Los Angeles Dodgers-Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game in Phoenix, where Brandon Webb, a former University of Kentucky baseball teammate of Hooker, is a pitcher. Another passenger, Charles Lykins of Naples, Fla., wanted an early flight so he could get home to his two young children after visiting friends and family in the Lexington area, said Paul Richardson of Winchester. Mike Finley, 52, who lived in Corbin and owned the Finley Fun Centers, was headed to Reno, Nev., for a rollerskating convention, said his son, David Taylor. "I'd say there's thousands of kids who grew up with our father," he said.

Rick Queen, who works for Turfway Realty in Lexington, said his father-in-law, Les Morris, was on the flight. Queen and Taylor were both frustrated with how Comair handled the families. "I just felt Delta ran families around this morning for three hours. I finally got some help from a Lexington firefighter," Taylor said.

Flight attendant Kelly Heyer was single and lived in the Cincinnati area. He had been working for the airline since 2004 and was recently appointed base representative for the flight attendant union said Tracy Riley, a union secretary and fellow Comair flight attendant. "He was a standup individual," Riley said. "He was very professional, loved the job."

Bornhorst described his own reaction as "complete devastation" and he lamented the frustration of the families as they awaited word. "When tragedies like this happen, information can just not be relayed fast enough and I certainly understand the frustrations related to that," Bornhorst said.