Remembering Flight 5191
Nothing, I suspect, can be more jarring than to tune in to one of the broadcast news programs or one of the cable news channels and see your hometown featured so prominently as mine has these past few days. As we closed the news cycle on Saturday our eyes were on the tropics wondering if Hurricane Ernesto was going to strengthen or weaken, wondering if it would hit the US coastline. Our hearts were in the Middle East wondering if the captured Fox News journalists would be freed. And our minds were on this weekendís football game between UK and U of L. Louisville has a great team this year, you see, and UK fans sort of like to pretend football season is just a warm-up for basketball season Ė which is what weíre really good at. We suck at football.
But that was what was on our minds on Saturday Night. It all changed Sunday Morning. I woke up early as my partnerís pager went off; his job was paging him to be on stand-by Ö something about an accident at the airport. Of course Sunday Morning is the absolute worst time to try to find local news. All the local channels have either church programs or some network or syndicated talking heads focusing on politics. But still, one of the local channels was running a crawl telling people to avoid the roads near the airport. Yet another channel was actually broadcasting live from the studio with a traffic cam showing the backup along the road in front of the airport. Still, all that was known was that there was some accident. Most of us thought another private plane had had an accident. After all, commercial jets always crash somewhere else, right?
The last major commercial aircraft to crash was on November 2001 when the American Airlines jet crashed near Queens, NY. None of us, absolutely none of us even gave it a second thought that such a thing happened here. On Saturday many of us were watching a polo match at the Kentucky Horse Park. We had planned to go back on Sunday afternoon.
But soon enough we all found out that what none of us had ever even considered happening, had happened. Delta Flight 5191 had crashed onto a horse farm adjacent to Blue Grass Airport.
The rest of the day was a blur. The sounds of emergency vehicles were evident much of the morning; I live fairly close to the airport. And even still, many of us wondered how this could happen. How could this happen at our airport? Compared to the airports at nearby Cincinnati and Louisville, ours is much smaller. The lines are smaller and you can find a parking place easily. Hell, you can even arrive 30 minutes before take-off and still make the plane.
As the news began to filter in we learned that the jet was on the wrong runway. Rather than taking off from the new 7000í runway, Flight 5191 had found itís way onto the much smaller (3500í) runway reserved for private planes and only used during daylight.
We began to learn some of the names of the people on the flight. 49 people died in a ball of fire, one survived Ė and he is still fighting for his life in the hospital. Most everyone that died was from here. Most of us knew one or more of them.
There was the former UK baseball player that had just gotten married 12 hours before the flight. He and his new bride were on their way to their honeymoon. The chairs from the reception were still sitting under the tent in which they got married on the grounds of a local museum.
We found out that the local director for Habitat for Humanity had been killed; he was on his way to New Orleans to lead a team of people to build houses there.
There was the young couple that had just moved here from Japan. They were on their way to California for a vacation.
There were three people from a local company that was delivering police uniforms to New Orleans. The company had donated new uniforms for the NOPD.
There was the 16-year-old girl from Kansas. Her mother had been bumped from the flight. Both were here to buy a horse for the daughter to have for riding. Her mother remained at the window of the airport and saw the jet carrying her daughter crash. I could never know what was going through that motherís head at the time.
Before the end of the day the national media were in town. There are teams of journalists that go from disaster to disaster. At one press conference one of them remarked how unusual it was to have food catered for the journalists. I guess many of them havenít spent much time in the South.
I believe it was CNN that ran a story about Lexington being an average everyday small city. They showed some impressive pictures of our downtown. The story recounted how the horse industry was centered right here in town. Of course Iím sure they didnít realize that the video that they ran was actually from Churchill Downs in Louisville. Our racetrack is Keeneland. People have always gotten Lexington and Louisville mixed up. News never happens here, after all. It happens somewhere else. Except for the first Saturday in May when the Derby brings thousands of people to the Blue Grass, we never make the news. And weíre just fine with that.
On Monday Morning most of us were wondering what we could do? How could we help the families that lost loved ones? Before even lunchtime several banks had established accounts to assist the families. And there were lines at the banks to donate money.
Local caterers and restaurants donated food to the hotel where the families were staying. And thatís not all Ö as the NTSB and other agencies were at the crash site, local restaurants and grocery stores were shipping food and water to the officers doing the hard job.
When it was learned that one local police officer had been burned when he saved the lone survivor from the fiery wreckage, it wasnít long before flowers, cards and other well-wishes began streaming to the police department.
Thatís what we do, after all, we help one another where we can.
This week Iíve seen media from as far as Great Britainís Sky News, here in town.
Our Mayor summed up the feeling we all had rather nicely. She said ďOur thoughts and prayers donít just go out to the family and friends of Flight 5191, we are the family and the friends of Flight 5191. I thought that summed it all up nicely.
It must have been much the same for Sioux City. Thatís the only other place that seems comparable as far as air crashes in out of the way small cities.
I donít think life will ever be the same here. 49 people never die at one time here. Lexington doesnít even have 49 murders in a year most of the time. There is very little crime here, and some of us donít even lock our doors all the time. My front door is unlocked most of the day; one of the neighbors might pop in you see.
And as the national news cycle begins to shift once again, this time away from my hometown, all of us here are still sad. Weíre still mourning. We all still want to know how such an avoidable accident could happen in our beautiful city.
And we wonder how much of the life we once knew, will be in our future.
I pray that we all find the answers that we need, and that each of us will pause and remember the 49 people that lost their lives on a quiet Sunday Morning on a horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky.
For me, the power of prayer has been profound these past few days, as Iím sure that it will continue to be in the days to come.