And Martin Griffith and Scott Sonner, Associated Press
RENO – Tragedy befell the Reno Air Races on Friday when a P-51 Mustang fighter plane crashed near the grandstands at Reno-Stead Airport, killing the pilot and at least two spectators and injuring more than 50.
Jimmy Leeward, 74, an air racer and stunt pilot, was flying a vintage World War II-era plane he had named “Galloping Ghost” during the last heat race of the day when he spiraled out of control, nose-dived to the ground and disintegrated upon impact.
The crash sent debris flying into the box seats that jutted out from the grandstands.
Authorities were investigating the cause, but an official with the event said there were indications that mechanical problems were to blame.
Stephanie Kruse, a spokeswoman for the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority, told The Associated Press that emergency crews took a total of 56 injury victims to three hospitals. She said they also observed a number of people being transported by private vehicle, which they are not including in their count.
Kruse said of the total 56, at the time of transport, 15 were considered in critical condition, 13 were in serious condition with potentially life-threatening injuries and 28 were non-serious or non-life threatening.
Renown Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Kathy Carter said that 25 patients had been received there. Twelve were in critical condition, 11 were reported in fair condition and two were confirmed dead. The names of the deceased had not been released as of press time.
Thirteen family members of patients had arrived at Renown and were being assisted by staff.
Additionally, four patients were transported to Renown South Meadows Medical Center. All are reported in fair condition.
Eight patients were taken to Northern Nevada Medical Center in Sparks, according to spokesperson Don Butterfield. Six were reported in critical condition and two were said to be in good condition.
Maureen Higgins of Alabama, who has been coming to the show for 16 years, said the pilot was on his third lap when he lost control.
She was sitting about 30 yards away from the crash and watched in horror as the man in front of her started bleeding after a piece of debris hit him in the head.
"I saw body parts and gore like you wouldn't believe it. I'm talking an arm, a leg," Higgins said. "The alive people were missing body parts. I am not kidding you. It was gore. Unbelievable gore."
Mike Houghton, president and CEO of the Reno Air Races, said at a news conference hours after the crash that there appeared to be a "problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control." He did not elaborate.
He said the rest of the races have been canceled as the National Transportation Safety Board investigates.
Tim Linville, 48, of Reno, said the pilot appeared to lose partial control off the plane when he veered off course and flew over the bleachers where Linville was sitting with his two daughters.
"I told the girls to run and the pilot pulled the plane straight up, but he couldn't do anything else with it," Linville told the AP. "That's when it nose-dived right into the box seats."
Linville said after the plane went straight up, it barrel-rolled and inverted downward, crashing into an area where at least 20 people were sitting.
"If he wouldn't have pulled up, he would have taken out the entire bleacher section," and hurt thousands of people, Linville said.
Linville said the plane smashed into the ground and shattered like an enormous water balloon, sending shrapnel and debris into the crowd.
"It was just flying everywhere," he said.
Houghton described Leeward as "a good friend. Everybody knows him. It's a tight knit family. He's been here for a long, long time," Houghton said.
He also described Leeward as a "very qualified, very experienced pilot" and that he was in good medical condition. He also suggested Leeward would have made every effort to avoid casualties on the ground if he knew he was going to crash.
"If it was in Jimmy's power, he would have done everything he possibly could," Houghton said.
A memorial for Leeward is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at the Reno-Stead Airport. The memorial is closed to the public.
Gov. Brian Sandoval called on Nevadans to donate blood to help the victims of the crash. Local residents concerned that their loved ones might have been injured can call 211 for information.
The National Championship Air Races draws thousands of people to Reno every year in September to watch various military and civilian planes race. They also have attracted scrutiny in the past over safety concerns, including four pilots killed in 2007 and 2008. It was such a concern that local school officials once considered whether they should not allow student field trips at the event.
The competition is like a car race in the sky, with planes flying wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the sagebrush at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.
The FAA and air race organizers spend months preparing for air races as they develop a plan involving pilot qualification, training and testing along with a layout for the course. The FAA inspects pilots' practice runs and brief pilots on the route maneuvers and emergency procedures.
The remainder of this year’s Reno Air Races has been cancelled and the future of the event, which began in 1964, was in doubt on Friday night.