Kentucky Horse Industry Impacted by Sunday Plane Crash

Kentucky Horse Industry Impacted by Sunday Plane Crash
Photo: Ross Mantle/AP
A police officer guards the wreckage of Comair flight 5191.
The Central Kentucky horse industry was reeling Sunday after several prominent members of the equine community and others were among the 49 people killed in the crash of a commuter jet shortly after takeoff from Blue Grass Airport in Lexington.

With only one of the 50 people aboard surviving, the victims included George Brunacini, who bred 2005 Travers Stakes (gr. I) winner Flower Alley; Central Kentucky horseman Dan Mallory; and trainer Jeff Williams. Also listed among the deceased by the Lexington Herald-Leader was 25-year-old Washington, D.C., resident Marcie Thomason, whose father, Bill Thomason, is financial and administrative manager of Mill Ridge Farm in Lexington.

Brunacini, who operated Bona Terra Farm, was confirmed among the flight victims by WLEX-TV.

Mallory, who operated Meadow Haven Farm and was a regular consignor to Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland sales, was on the flight, according to Tim Boyce, sales director for Fasig-Tipton Texas. Mallory was en route to the Fasig-Tipton Texas sale that will be held Monday and Tuesday.

Williams, 49, entered the business through his association with polo ponies and the Dayton Polo Club in Centerville, Ohio. He went on to become an assistant trainer with W.E. "Smiley" Adams in the late '70s and began an association with Ohio's Woodburn Farm through the 1980s. He conditioned 10 stakes winners for Woodburn Farm, including 1985 Ohio 2-year-old champion Astrotot.

Late Sunday, the United Way of the Bluegrass and Central Bank established a fund for contributions to assist the families of victims. To contribute to the fund, visit any Central Bank in the Bluegrass or mail donations to:
United Way of Bluegrass
5191 Care Fund
2480 Fortune Drive
Lexington, KY 40509

According to the Associated Press, the lone survivor, the co-pilot, was in critical condition. Investigators Sunday determined the plane was on the wrong runway.

Comair Flight 5191, a CRJ-200 regional jet, crashed at 6:07 a.m. in a field less than mile from the runway, said Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

It was the country's worst domestic airplane accident in nearly six years.

The cause of the crash wasn't immediately clear, but the location of the wreckage raised questions about the runways at Blue Grass Airport. The burning plane was just off the end of the airport's 3,500-foot-long general aviation runway, an unlit strip built at a V shape to the longer main runway. According to the FAA, it would have been too short for the CRJ-200 jet.

The plane was in flames but largely intact when rescuers reached it, and authorities said they were able to get one crew member out alive, but the fire was devastating.

"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.

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 sent to Washington, D.C., for analysis.

Lexington police spokesman Sean Lawson said investigators were looking into whether the pilot discovered too late that he was on the wrong runway. The main runway at Lexington's airport is 7,000 feet long. Blue Grass Airport was closed to flights the previous weekend for runway repaving but reopened Aug. 20.

That type of plane needs 4,500 feet to 5,000 feet before it lifts off, said Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at Saint Louis University.

Czysz said aerial images of the wreck indicate it was almost inconceivable that the airplane could have taken off on the longer runway because its nose is almost parallel with the shorter one. Also, trees at the end of the shorter runway were damaged, he said.

"Sometimes with the intersecting runways, pilots go down the wrong one," Czysz said. "It doesn't happen very often."

On Oct. 31, 2000, a Singapore Airlines jumbojet crashed at Taiwan's Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport after it took a wrong turn down a runway that had been closed for repairs and plowed through construction equipment. The SQ006 crash killed 83 people.

The three-member flight crew aboard the plane 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.

"We are absolutely, totally committed to doing everything humanly possible to determine the cause of this accident," Bornhorst said.

Most of the passengers aboard the crashed plane had planned to connect to other flights in Atlanta and did not have family waiting for them, said the Rev. Harold Boyce, a volunteer chaplain at Atlanta's 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."

Bornhorst identified the three crew members as Capt. Jeffrey Clay, who was hired by Comair in 1999, first officer James M. Polehinke, the survivor 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, Ky.

Investigators from the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board were at the scene.

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 a nearby hotel.

Two sheriff's deputies guarded the entrance of the nearby hotel where family members of passengers were being brought.

Rick Queen, who works for Turf Town 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 an 800 phone number to call.

"This is one of the worst-handled events in Lexington history," Queen said as he left.

Delta Chief Executive Officer Gerald Grinstein issued a statement expressing condolences for those involved.

"We at Delta Air Lines want to extend our heartfelt sympathy and full support to everyone affected by the Comair accident, including family and friends of those onboard as well as our Comair colleagues. We are working closely with Comair to provide the resources necessary to assist in any way possible with this tragic event," Grinstein said.

The flight attendant aboard the plane that crashed, Kelly Heyer, 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 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.

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 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.

Delta Airlines, the parent company of Comair, set up a hotline for friends and family to call to learn about love ones: 800 801-0088.

Comair Information Center: http://www.comair.com

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