Commuter Jet Crash in Kentucky Kills 49

By Del Quentin Wilber and Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 28, 2006

LEXINGTON, Ky., Aug. 27 -- An Atlanta-bound Comair commuter jet carrying 50 people took off from the wrong runway here Sunday and crashed into a nearby grassy field, bursting into flames and killing all but one on board.

Taking off in predawn light and a gentle rain, the Delta Connection crew for Flight 5191 used a narrow, 3,400-foot stretch of pavement known as Runway 26 that was not intended for jets, only smaller prop planes, at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport. Experts said that on such a short strip, the plane probably would not have been able to gain enough speed before takeoff.

It was the nation's deadliest air crash in nearly five years. The plane careened through an airport security fence, ending up in a farm field, about a quarter-mile from the end of the runway, where it burned so intensely that its fuselage appeared reduced to all but ashes. A police officer and rescue workers pulled the co-pilot from the wreckage, but the fire made it impossible for them to reach anyone else.

Federal safety investigators are trying to determine why the pilots did not taxi to the much longer runway commercial jets use here, which is known as Runway 22 and intersects the strip the Comair jet used. Among other possible factors, they also are investigating whether the plane's weight or engine troubles contributed to the crash.

"This aircraft came off of Runway 26," said Deborah Hersman, of the National Transportation Safety Board, at a news briefing here Sunday evening. She noted that the plane left noticeable "scar marks" at the end of the runway and crashed through an airport perimeter fence.

Investigators said privately that they think the pilots may been mistaken about the runway they were on. Hersman said at the briefing that "the information we have, and it's not complete, indicates there was only reference to Runway 22" in communication between the pilots and air traffic control.

The University of Kentucky hospital was treating the crash's lone survivor, co-pilot Jim Polehinke, who was hired in 2002. Comair said the other crew members -- pilot Jeffrey Clay, hired by the airline in 1999, and flight attendant Kelly Heyer, hired in 2004 -- died in the crash. The airline and other officials said Sunday evening that they had not contacted the families of all victims.

Dozens of firetrucks and police cars covered the roads at the end of Runway 26 and near the crash, which appeared to be close to some trees on the adjacent farm. Late Sunday, police blocked part of one road with orange cones and were bringing in large floodlights to aid the recovery and identifying of bodies from the crash, which was expected to go on through the night. Comair, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines Inc., assisted victims' family members a few miles from the airport at a hotel near a racetrack and horse farms.

Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said he thinks most victims died from the fire that engulfed the plane, rather than from smoke inhalation. Ginn said a temporary morgue is being set up at the scene.

The victims included a newlywed couple on their way to a California honeymoon, a University of Kentucky official and a Habitat for Humanity official on his way to help Hurricane Katrina victims.

Jon Hooker, 27, was a University of Kentucky baseball player who also played for several minor league teams. He had married Scarlett Parsley, a graduate student, on Saturday. "The last time I saw him, he was so happy," said Anthony Combs, a cousin who was one of Hooker's groomsmen. "It has been a roller coaster for us. . . . I was so tired last night, and I woke up and got the news and I can't believe it. I'm still hoping to wake up and find this was all a bad dream. You just can't believe it."

Another victim was Larry Turner, an associate dean at the University of Kentucky, the school said in a statement. "Larry oversaw the work of more than 1,000 people, but he undoubtedly touched countless lives with his deep integrity, commitment and gentle nature," university President Lee T. Todd Jr. said in a statement.

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