An Atlanta-bound flight took off Sunday morning from a Lexington, Ky., runway that was too short for the plane's size and weight, crashing into nearby farmland and killing all but one of the 50 people aboard.
The survivor, the flight's first officer, was rescued from the smoldering aircraft by law enforcement officials who were unable to save anyone else. He was listed in critical condition late Sunday.
Aerial photos of the pre-dawn crash and statements by federal investigators indicate that Comair Flight 5191 used the Lexington airport's secondary, unlighted runway. That would have been a critical mistake because it is about half the length of the main runway and not long enough for the 25-ton Bombardier CRJ100 commuter jet to fully lift off, according to experts.
The plane, which needs a minimum of 5,000 feet of runway to take off, instead had only 3,500 feet. It struck a fence at the end of the runway, investigators said, then hit the ground about a quarter-mile away and burst into flames.
It was not clear why the crew would have been using the shorter runway. Experts said recent construction at Lexington Blue Grass Airport and darkness may have contributed to the confusion.
The crash marked the worst domestic air accident since November 2001, when 260 died aboard an American Airlines flight that crashed in Queens, N.Y. Despite financial turmoil in the U.S. airline industry, the skies had been mostly accident-free during the past five years.
As of Sunday evening, neither Kentucky-based Comair nor its parent company, Atlanta's Delta Air Lines, had released a list of the 47 passengers who perished. The Lexington Herald-Leader compiled a partial list based on interviews with victims' families, and most of those passengers were from Kentucky. They included a newlywed Lexington couple who were married Saturday night.
Victims' families were being housed at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Lexington. Gerry van der Meer, hotel general manager, said Sunday night that about 50 family members had arrived and about 600 were expected.
Van der Meer said residents were sending flowers and sympathy cards to the hotel. "Obviously there's a lot of grieving," he said.
Chaplains at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport met with family members waiting for their loved ones who expected the flight to touch down at 7:18 a.m. The jet took off from Lexington at 6:10 a.m.
One of the chaplains, the Rev. Harold Boyce, consoled a woman whose sister was on the plane. The two sisters were planning to fly from Atlanta to catch an Alaskan cruise, he said.
"They had been planning this trip for years," Boyce said. "We had a word of prayer. She's holding up very well."
The Comair jet, which can carry up to seven tons of fuel, crashed immediately after takeoff and skidded to a halt near a thick stand of tall trees. There were eyewitness accounts of a fireball upon impact, Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said.
National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman said at a news conference that the plane had been lined up to take off from Runway 26, which is a far shorter piece of concrete than the airport's main runway and is used for small propeller planes. The 25-ton plane should have gone down Runway 22, which is 7,003 feet long.
The shorter runway isn't meant for planes the size of the Comair craft that crashed and is supposed to be used only during daylight, said Tommy Gandolfo, who is secretary on the board of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Airport Corp., a public nonprofit that owns the airport.
Weather appeared to play no significant role in the accident. Visibility was reportedly seven miles at the time of the crash with light winds and clouds about 5,000 feet above the ground.
During an afternoon news conference in Lexington, a visibly shaken Comair President Don Bornhorst said the Delta subsidiary's main priorities were assisting relatives of the victims and cooperating with the federal investigation of the crash.
"I can't tell you the emotional devastation this brings upon an airline," Bornhorst said. "I cannot adequately express to you our sadness."
Bornhorst said he would not speculate on the cause of the crash, saying it could impair the investigation. He said the names of the passengers on the flight would be released after relatives were notified, although other news reports said the release would come after positive identifications through dental records.
The plane's captain, Jeff Clay, had worked for Comair since November 1999 and was familiar with the aircraft, which had its latest maintenance check on Saturday, Bornhorst said. The surviving first officer or co-pilot, James Polehinke, was hired in 2002.
"The crew had been operating the same airplane for some time now," Bornhorst said.
Mike Proctor, a flight instructor based at Blue Grass Airport and who has flown out of the airport since 1978, said he was concerned that, in the darkness and with few visual references, Comair's pilot may have been thrown off by recent changes at the airport and conflicting information.
"If there is confusion about where you are, confusion about the markings, confusion about the runway orientation . . . all of this just adds up to steamroller," Proctor said. "I'm just hoping this didn't add one more element to something that led to a catastrophe."
Resurfacing work done at the airport a week ago included shifting the main runway used by commercial aircraft. Updated airport diagrams given to pilots no longer show an old taxiway and a former part of the runway, even though they still exist in concrete, Proctor said.
A recorded airport message for pilots does, however, mention the old taxiway and advises pilots not to use it, he said. If the pilot had flown into the airport frequently in the past, he might not have fully accounted for the recent changes there, Proctor said.
"Those of us who may use our memories and familiarity with the airport will find that familiarity will get us into trouble," he said. "I'm just very concerned that this happened one week after all of these changes went into effect."
It's rare for a plane to get on the wrong runway, but "sometimes with the intersecting runways, pilots go down the wrong one," said St. Louis University aerospace professor emeritus Paul Czysz.
The worst such crash came on Oct. 31, 2000, when a Los Angeles-bound Singapore Airlines jumbo jet mistakenly went down a runway at Taiwan's Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport that had been closed for repairs because of a recent typhoon. The resulting collision with construction equipment killed 83 people onboard.
Erik Rigler, a private San Antonio-based aircraft accident investigator, said the pilot would have had a tough, split-second decision to make if he attempted to take off from a shorter runway.
"The choice is hit the brakes and thrust reverse, or commit yourself and go airborne," Rigler said. "If you see the end of the runway coming it's not a happy choice."
If the plane did not have enough time to build up speed and the pilot tried to take off, the plane might never take off or might rise momentarily before falling back to Earth, he said.
Federal investigators expect to learn more about the crash in the coming days as they review the plane's cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, which were recovered from the wreckage. "We're still determining what was going on in the cockpit," said the NTSB's Hersman.
Lexington law enforcement authorities estimated it would take a few days to retrieve all the bodies from the charred aircraft. Fayette County, Ky., Coroner Gary Ginn said emergency personnel were confronted with the awful site of a smoldering aircraft sitting in the peaceful countryside. Most of the victims' deaths were fire-related, he said.
Rescue workers observed a moment of silence and were then led in prayer by a police chaplain before carrying on with their work, Ginn said.
"It was a horrible sight to see," he said.
Staff writers Andrea Jones, Ariel Hart, Matt Kempner, Dave Hirschman, Walter Woods, Russell Grantham, Craig Schneider and Saeed Ahmed and The Associated Press and the Lexington Herald-Leader contributed to this article.
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