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Reno air race crash kills 3, injures 56

Vintage fighter slams into crowd and disintegrates

Witnesses said the P-51 Mustang piloted by Jimmy Leeward, 80, of Ocala, Fla., was in its third lap of a race when he appeared to lose control of the plane and it struck a box seat area. Witnesses said the P-51 Mustang piloted by Jimmy Leeward, 80, of Ocala, Fla., was in its third lap of a race when he appeared to lose control of the plane and it struck a box seat area. (Youtube via The New York Times)
By Martin Griffith and Scott Sonner
Associated Press / September 17, 2011

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RENO, Nev. - A World War II-era fighter plane plunged into the grandstands yesterday during a popular annual air show, killing at least three people and injuring more than 50 spectators and creating a horrific scene strewn with body parts and smoking debris.

The plane spiraled suddenly out of control and appeared to disintegrate upon impact. Bloodied bodies were spread across the area as people tended to the victims and ambulances rushed to the scene.

Maureen Higgins of Alabama, who has been attending 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.’’

Among the dead was pilot Jimmy Leeward, 80, of Ocala, Fla., who flew the P-51 Mustang named the “Galloping Ghost,’’ according to Mike Houghton, president and chief executive of Reno Air Races.

Renown Medical Center spokeswoman Kathy Carter confirmed that two others died, but did not provide their identities.

Stephanie Kruse, a spokeswoman for the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority, said 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 serious condition with potentially life-threatening injuries and 28 were non-serious or not life-threatening.

“This is a very large incident, probably one of the largest this community has seen in decades,’’ Kruse said. “The community is pulling together to try to deal with the scope of it. The hospitals have certainly geared up and staffed up to deal with it.’’

The P-51 Mustang crashed into a box-seat area in front of the grandstand at about 4:30 p.m., race spokesman Mike Draper said. Houghton said Leeward appeared to have “lost control of the aircraft,’’ though details on why that happened were not immediately known.

KRNV-TV weatherman Jeff Martinez, who was just outside the air race grounds at the time, said the plane veered to the right and then “it just augered straight into the ground.’’

“You saw pieces and parts going everywhere,’’ he said. “Everyone is in disbelief.’’

Tanya Breining, off Hayward, Calif., told KTVU-TV in San Francisco: “It was absolute carnage. . . . It looked like more than a bomb exploded.’’

Another witness, Ronald Sargis, said he was sitting in the box seat area near the finish line.

“We could see the plane coming around the far turn - it was in trouble,’’ Sargis told KCRA-TV in Sacramento. “About six or seven boxes down from us, it impacted into the front row.’’

He said the pilot appeared to do all he could to avoid crashing into the crowd. Response teams immediately went to work, Sargis said. After the crash Sargis went up a few rows into the grandstand to view the downed plane.

“It appeared to be just pulverized,’’ he said.

Leeward, the owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team, was a well-known racing pilot.

His website says he has flown more than 120 races and served as a stunt pilot for numerous movies, including “Amelia’’ and “Cloud Dancer.’’

In an interview with the Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner last year, he described how he has flown 250 types of planes and has a particular fondness for the P-51, which came into the war relatively late and was used as a long-range bomber escort over Europe. Among the famous pilots of the hot new fighter was WWII double ace Chuck Yeager.

“They’re more fun. More speed, more challenge. Speed, speed and more speed,’’ Leeward 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.

The National Championship Air Races draw thousands of people every year in September to watch military and civilian planes race.

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