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Plane crash victims are remembered in sculpture

Five years after a plane crash killed 49 people, their relatives gathered Saturday for a tearful ceremony to unveil a striking sculpture showing a flock of birds in flight to memorialize the victims.

The people who died aboard Comair Flight 5191 were remembered in song, prayer and speeches during an hour-long service highlighted by the dedication of the 17-foot-tall metal sculpture placed in a rose garden at the University of Kentucky Arboretum.

The sculpture by Kentucky artist Douwe Blumberg shows 49 birds in flight toward heaven. The victims’ families had a chance to place mementos placed in a capsule encased in the sculpture.

As the long-planned sculpture was unveiled, many relatives burst in applause. The unveiling occurred exactly five years after the plane crashed into a field near Blue Grass Airport in Lexington after trying to take off from a runway too short for commercial jets.

Relatives later flocked to the soaring sculpture, which sits on a granite circle inscribed with the names of those who died in the crash. Some took photos of the sculpture, while others knelt at the name of loved ones. 

“If a memorial can make you appreciate life, this is that memorial,” said Matthew Snoddy, whose father Tim Snoddy died in the flight. “If a memorial can help you find peace, this is that memorial.”

The unveiling was the culmination of work by a special commission that raised about $250,000 for the memorial. The group is still raising money to help pay for the site’s upkeep.

Each victim’s name was read aloud during the solemn service. Several hundred relatives sat under a large tent in the pastoral setting regularly visited by joggers and nature enthusiasts.

Most of the victims were from Kentucky. Others were from Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and Canada.

“Five years ago this very day, my life and the lives of many of you here were changed forever,” said Lois Turner, who lost her husband, Larry, in the crash.

Since that time, the families of victims have celebrated weddings, graduations, births and other special events, she said.

“Life has gone on, very different than before the crash, perhaps a little more reflective, perhaps a little more precious than before,” she said.

Gov. Steve Beshear told the crowd he lost friends in the crash and said he has struggled to “handle that loss.”

“This memorial reminds us of the pain of that day, a still-open wound that we all share, but one that also binds us together,” said Beshear, his voice tinged with emotion.

Turner said the sculpture isn’t just for the families and friends of people killed aboard Flight 5191 on Aug. 27, 2006.

“It will be here at this special location for years for anyone who comes this way in need of comfort and hope,” she said.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman called the victims’ relatives “an amazing group of people,” praising their grace in dealing with tragedy. She said the victims were “all special, all loved, always remembered.”

Five years ago, Hersman had the role of leading the NTSB’s investigation of the crash, and she became a familiar face to the victims looking for answers to what caused the tragedy.

The crash was found by federal investigators to be a case of pilot error. The two pilots, one of whom was the lone survivor, steered the plane in the pre-dawn darkness down an unlit general aviation runway that was too short for commercial planes to take off.

Co-pilot James Polehinke, the lone survivor, didn’t attend the service. Polehinke, who was rescued from the charred cockpit, lost a leg and suffered other severe injuries.

William E. Johnson, who was an attorney for Polehinke, said in an interview Friday that Polehinke “has continued with his life.” But Johnson said Polehinke “will always suffer both from … his physical injuries and then the tragedy that he was a part of.”

The NTSB investigation into the crash resulted in 10 recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration, Hersman said. The FAA has moved forward on five recommendations, including a requirement that larger airports enhance taxiway and runway markings, she said.

“Aviation is now safer because of what happened here five years ago,” she said.

Sue Byrd, whose son Brian was killed in the crash along with his fiance, talked about the preciousness of life in comments she said came “from my heart to yours.” Her son and his fiance, Judy Rains, were headed to the Caribbean to get married when the plane went down.

“Always speak from your heart to the people that you love,” she said. “Don’t put off until tomorrow sharing your feelings with them. Live your life that if tomorrow never came, you would have no regrets.

“The families here understand that one minute our loved ones are with us and the next minute they are gone forever.”