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Saturday, September 17, 2011

RENO, Nev. — A vintage World War II-era fighter plane crashed into a seating area Friday at a popular annual Reno air race show, killing at least three people, including the pilot, and injuring more than 50. Officials feared the death toll would rise.

Witnesses reported a horrific mix of blood, body parts and smoking debris strewn across the crash site.

The accident happened just before 4:30 p.m. during the National Championship Air Races at the Reno-Stead Airport.

Witnesses told KTVN-TV that planes in the Unlimited race were ascending when one aircraft, a vintage P-51 Mustang flown by a renowned air racer and movie stunt pilot, nose-dived into a box-seat area near a spectator grandstand in the southeast corner.

The plane disintegrated, strewing debris into the nearby stands.

Mike Draper, a spokesman for the Reno National Championship Air Races, described the scene as "a mass-casualty situation." Bloodied bodies were spread across the area as people tended to the victims and ambulances rushed to the scene.

Image: Jimmy Leeward

Marilyn Newton  /  AP file

Jimmy Leeward is seen in this Sept. 15, 2010, photo with his P-51 Mustang.

Jimmy Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Fla., who flew the P-51, was killed, said Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races.

"Dear friends, we are deeply saddened by the tragedy at the air race today. Please join us in praying at this time for all the families affected," Leeward's family wrote in a message posted on Facebook.

Renown Medical Center spokeswoman Kathy Carter said at least two others taken to the hospital had died, but did not provide their identities. 

'Unbelievable gore'
Witness Maureen Higgins of Alabama said the pilot was on his third lap when he lost control of the plane. She told the Gazette-Journal she was sitting about 30 yards away from the crash and the man in front of her was struck in the head by a piece of debris.

"I saw body parts and gore like you wouldn't believe it. I'm talking an arm, a leg," Higgins told the newspaper. "The alive people were missing body parts. I am not kidding you. It was gore. Unbelievable gore."

Video apparently taken from the stands and posted on YouTube showed a plane crashing nose-down at the show after several other planes raced by in the air.

Spectators could be heard gasping: "Oh my God." A photograph captured the doomed plane, nose down just before impact.

"It was in the Unlimited Gold race on about the second lap when the third-place aircraft, No. 177, the Galloping Ghost flown by Jimmy Leeward experienced mechanical problems," said Tim O'Brien, a Grass Valley resident on assignment at the races for The Union newspaper. "The plane vaulted violently upward, followed by a dive straight into the front of the reserve grandstands."

Jeff Martinez, a KRNV weatherman, was just outside the air race grounds at the time. He said he saw the plane veer to the right and then went "straight into the ground."

"You saw pieces and parts going everywhere," he said.

'Like a massacre'
Local TV stations aired videotape of the scene that showed numerous people being treated at the scene or being carried on stretchers to ambulances.

Debris from the crash was strewn through a seating area in front of the grandstands.

“It’s just like a massacre. It’s like a bomb went off,” said Dr. Gerald Lent of Reno, who witnessed the crash, told the Gazette-Journal. “There are people lying all over the runway.”

He added: "One guy was cut in half. There's blood everywhere. There’s arms and legs."

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 had non-serious or non-life threatening injuries.

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

Image: Medics help injured bystanders out of a helicopter into Renown Medical Center

Liz Margerum/The Reno Gazette-Jo

Medics help injured bystanders out of a helicopter into Renown Medical Center.

Houghton, of Reno Air Races, said it was too early to know for sure what caused the wreck, but there appeared to be a "problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control."

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