NTSB: Crashed jet used shorter runway

LEXINGTON, Kentucky (CNN) -- A Comair commuter jet took off from a short runway used by private aircraft rather than a longer one typically used by commercial jets before it crashed Sunday morning, a National Transportation Safety Board official said.

Comair Flight 5191 crashed about half a mile past the end of the runway shortly after takeoff Sunday morning, killing 49 of the 50 people on board. The sole survivor, first officer James Polehinke, was in critical condition at a Lexington hospital.

The Delta commuter flight had been cleared to take off from the 7,000-foot Runway 22 at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport, sources told CNN earlier Sunday. Instead, evidence at the scene indicates the plane took off from Runway 26, which is about half as long, NTSB member Debbie Hersman told reporters Sunday evening.

"We're still working on determining what was going on in the cockpit, what information was discussed between air traffic controllers and the pilots," Hersman said. "That's part of our investigation, and we hope to have more information about that later."

Hersman would not discuss how or why the plane ended up on the shorter runway. Nor would she say whether the Canadian-built Bombardier CRJ-100 would have been able to successfully take off from a 3,500-foot runway. (Watch results of early NTSB review -- 3:27)

But former NTSB Vice Chairman Bob Francis told CNN that the twin-engine jet would have needed about 5,000 feet of runway for a successful takeoff.

Hersman said investigators are combing through 32 minutes of cockpit voice recordings and "several hundred" readings from the plane's flight data recorder as they search for the cause of the crash.

The plane was carrying 47 passengers and three crew members. One of the passengers was an off-duty crew member sitting in the plane's jump seat, Blue Grass Airport Director Michael Gobb said. (Honeymooners among victims)

Officer burned during rescue

Flight 5191 was en route to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Georgia, where it was scheduled to land at 7:18 a.m. ET.

Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said he believes most people died from fire-related causes "rather than smoke inhalation."

First responders extricated Polehinke, according to Blue Grass Airport's Chief of Public Safety Scott Lanter.

They "observed movement at the front of the aircraft, and then extricated the first officer from the nose of the airplane," Lanter said.

Lexington Police Officer Bryan Jared and two airport officers, John Sallee and James "Pete" Maupin, pulled the first officer from the plane, with Jared burning both of his arms during the rescue, Gobb told The Associated Press.

Flight 5191 was cleared for takeoff at 6:05 a.m. ET, which was the last communication between the pilot and air-traffic controllers at the airport, Federal Aviation Administration officials said.

County Coroner Ginn said much of the aircraft remained intact, despite a heavy fire that "traveled with the plane." The airport's fire department "got there very fast ... and because of that, we're able to keep a lot of the plane intact," he said.

The coroner's office has set up a temporary morgue in Frankfort -- about 30 miles west of Lexington -- "in order to expedite the autopsies," Ginn said.

He said he is asking family members for dental records to help make identifications.

Bornhorst told reporters in Kentucky that his priority was "to assuage the grief of all of the family and friends of the passengers who have been impacted by this great tragedy."

"That will be job No. 1 for us, but a very close second job is also to assist and to cooperate with the investigation from the NTSB and from the FAA," he said. (Watch Bornhorst detail the facts of the crash -- 7:30)

Comair purchased the CRJ-100 from Bombardier in January 2001 and said its maintenance was up-to-date.

That type of plane has a good track record, according to the NTSB Web site.

Bornhorst said the flight crew had been "on a legal rest period far beyond what is required," but the specifics of the crew's schedule will be part of the NTSB investigation.

The pilot, Capt. Jeffrey Clay, began work with Comair in 1999 and was promoted two years ago to captain, Bornhorst said.

Polehinke has worked for Comair since 2002, and Kelly Heyer, a male flight attendant, had been employed with the carrier since 2004, he said.

The plane went down before sunrise, scaring residents who initially thought it was bad weather.

"I really thought it was a big clap of thunder, so [I] didn't think much about it until I heard all the sirens," one man said.

Another man described what he saw from his back door.

"Over the hillside, I saw a flash of light and then an explosion, and then just a big plume of smoke come up," he said.

Sunday's crash is the deadliest U.S. airline crash since November 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into a Queens, New York, neighborhood less than two minutes after the Airbus A300 left the runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

All 260 on board Flight 587 were killed, along with five people on the ground, making it the second-deadliest air crash in U.S. history.

CNN's Jason Carroll contributed to this report.

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