Sculpture to honor Kentucky plane crash victims

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - They died together in the pre-dawn darkness - 49 people aboard a plane that crashed into a field shortly after taking off from a central Kentucky airport. Now they'll be memorialized together in art - a striking 17-foot-tall sculpture.

Exactly five years after Comair Flight 5191 went down near Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, hundreds of relatives and friends of those who died will gather at the University of Kentucky Arboretum on Saturday to dedicate the artwork depicting 49 birds in flight.

"It's very uplifting, very hopeful, a very peaceful sculpture," said Lois Turner, who lost her husband, Larry, in the crash.

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

There's a personal touch for the victims' families. They had a chance to place mementos into capsules encased in each bird.

Sue Byrd said her family chose reminders of her son Brian, who was traveling with his fiance, Judy Rains, to the Caribbean to get married when the plane went down. She chose a tiny baseball to commemorate his love of Little League baseball, and a University of Kentucky pin to signify his loyalty to the school's athletic teams. The family crafted a note, words that "came from our hearts," she said.

Turner said her family chose mementos representing her husband's faith, love of family and loyalty to UK, where was associate dean for extension in the College of Agriculture and director of its Cooperative Extension Service.

The families don't know which bird represents their loved ones, a symbolic decision, she said."It's special that they're a group there," Turner said.

Turner took a sneak peak of the sculpture, which sits on a granite circle inscribed with the names of those who died in the crash.

Byrd saw photos of the unfinished artwork but wanted to wait until the ceremony to see it herself for the first time. "It's going to be absolutely breathtaking when the unveiling happens," she said in anticipation.

Douwe Blumberg, the Kentucky artist who created the statue, said his metal creation represents "49 souls set free, soaring upward." "I hope it would convey a sense of hope," he said.

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

The lone survivor of the flight, co-pilot James Polehinke, won't be attending the service, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported, citing his mother. 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 the two talk occasionally.

"He's a remarkable individual. He has continued with his life," said Johnson, noting that Polehinke has learned to snow ski. But the tragedy will always be part of his life, he said.

"I think he will always suffer both from ... his physical injuries and then the tragedy that he was a part of," Johnson said.

More than 350 relatives and friends of those who died are expected to gather for the fifth anniversary ceremony. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray plan to attend.

The memorial, surrounded by flower gardens, is in a popular place for nature enthusiasts and joggers. Turner predicts it will become a community landmark as a place for reflection.

"It's going to be a place for anyone who has lost someone to go and be able to be comforted," she said.

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

Jury selection in a massive case against Comair was called off in 2008 when confidential financial settlements were reached between Comair and all but two families of the passengers who died. One of these settled a few weeks later. A federal judge earlier this year ordered the remaining family of a victim to divide $7.1 million in damages.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.