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.
Comair Flight 5191, a Bombardier CRJ-200 regional jet, crashed at 6:07 a.m., said Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration.
It was not 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."
The crash was the United States' 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 did not 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-date. 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.
The plane had 14,500 flight hours, "consistent with aircraft of that age," Bornhorst said. Comair is a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines Inc. based in the Cincinnati suburb of Erlanger, Kentucky.
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 (2,130 meters) long, while a daytime-only, unlit general aviation runway is about 3,500 feet (1,067 meters).
Chief Scott Lanter of the airport fire department said the crash was about a mile (1.6 kilometers) 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, Kentucky, 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.
Two sheriff's deputies guarded the entrance of a nearby hotel where family members of passengers were being brought.
Rick Queen, who works for Turfway Realty in Lexington, said his father-in-law, Les Morris, was on the flight. He said Comair brought all the family members into a room at a Lexington hotel, told them the plane had crashed and family members died, then gave them a phone number to call.
"This is one of the worst handled events in Lexington history," Queen said as he left.
Kelly Heyer, the flight attendant, lived in the Cincinnati area and recently had been appointed as a base representative for the flight attendant union, said Tracey Riley, a union recording secretary and fellow Comair flight attendant.
"He was a standup individual," Riley said. "He was very professional, loved the job."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said President George W. 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 the Queens borough of New York City, killing 265 people, including five on the ground.
On Jan. 8, 2003, an Air Midwest commuter plane crashed on takeoff at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, killing all 21 aboard.
Last December, a seaplane operated by Chalk's Ocean Airways crashed off Miami Beach, Florida, when its right wing separated from the fuselage shortly after takeoff, killing the 18 passengers and two crew members. That plane, a Grumman G-73 Turbo Mallard, was built in 1947 and modified significantly in 1979.
The NTSB's last record of a CRJ crash was on November 21, 2004, when a China Eastern-Yunnan Airlines Bombardier crashed shortly after takeoff. The 6 crew members and 47 passengers on the CRJ-200 were killed, and there were two fatalities on the ground.
Associated Press Writer Leslie Miller in Washington and Harry Weber in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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