Houston Community News >> Comair Crash Kills 49

8/27/2006 Lexington, Ky. - A commuter jet taking off for Atlanta crashed just past the runway and burst into flames, killing 49 people before dawn Sunday and leaving the lone survivor in critical condition.

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Comair Flight 5191, a CRJ-200 regional jet, crashed at 6:07 a.m., said Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration. It wasn't immediately clear what caused the plane to crash in a field just beyond Lexington's Blue Grass Airport. The plane was largely intact, and authorities said rescuers were able to get one crew members out alive, but the county coroner described a devastating fire following the impact.

"They were taking off, so I'm sure they had a lot of fuel on board," Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said. "Most of the injuries are going to be due to fire-related deaths."

"We are going to say a mass prayer before we begin the work of removing the bodies," he said.

The crash was the country's worst domestic airplane accident in nearly six years. Lexington police spokesman Sean Lawson said investigators were looking into whether the plane had taken off from the wrong runway and discovered too late that they didn't have the length they expected. FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency had no indication that terrorism was involved in any way.

Both flight recorders, which should help investigators determine what went wrong were found, Ginn said.

The three-member flight crew was experienced and had been flying that airplane for some time, said Comair President Don Bornhorst. He said the plane's maintenance was up to do. He would not speculate on what happened but said, "We are absolutely, totally committed to doing everything humanly possible to determine the cause of this accident."

In Atlanta, most of the passengers aboard that plane had planned to connect to other flights and did not have family waiting for them there, said the Rev. Harold Boyce, a volunteer chaplain at Hartsfield-Jackson airport.

One woman was there expecting her sister on the flight. The two had planned to fly together to catch an Alaskan cruise, he said. "Naturally, she was very sad," Boyce said. "She was handling it. She was in tears."

The only survivor, believed to be the flight's first officer, according to airport director Michael Gobb, was in surgery at the University of Kentucky hospital Sunday morning. Bornhorst identified the three crew members as Capt. Jeffrey Clay, who was hired by Comair in 1999, first officer James M. Polehinke, who was hired in 2002, and flight attendant Kelly Heyer, hired in 2004.

The plane had undergone routine maintenance as recently as Saturday, Bornhorst said. Comair purchased that plane in January 2001, and all maintenance was normal as far as the information Comair had Sunday morning, he said.

Investigators from the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board were investigating the crash.

If the plane was on the wrong runway, it could have been shorter than the pilot expected. The main runway at Lexington's airport is 7,000 feet long, while a daytime-only, unlit general aviation runway is about 3,500 feet. Chief Scott Lanter of the airport fire department said the crash was about a mile off the end of the shorter runway.

"We don't know which runway they were using," he said. Blue Grass Airport had been closed to flights the previous weekend for runway repaving but reopened Aug. 20. It was closed for three hours after the crash.

Outside the terminal lobby at midmorning, Paul Richardson of Winchester had come to the airport because he believed a friend from Florida was on the plane. "He took the earlier flight so he could get back to family," Richardson said. He said airport officials were taking friends and family on buses to the nearby hotel.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said President Bush, who is spending a long weekend at his family's summer home on the Maine coast, was being briefed on the crash. "The president was deeply saddened by the news of the plane crash in Kentucky today," she said. "His sympathies are with the many families of the victims of this tragedy."

The crash marks the end of what has been called the "safest period in aviation history" in the United States. There has not been a major crash since Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 plunged into a residential neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., killing 265 people, including five on the ground.

(Contributed by AP)