RENO, Nev. – The death toll rose to nine Saturday in an air race crash in Reno as investigators determined that several spectators were killed on impact as the 1940s-model plane appeared to lose a piece of its tail before slamming into a crowded tarmac.
Moments earlier, thousands had arched their necks skyward and watched the planes speed by just a few hundred feet off the ground before some noticed a strange gurgling engine noise from above. Seconds later, the P-51 Mustang dubbed the Galloping Ghost pitched oddly upward, twirled and took an immediate nosedive into a section of white VIP box seats.
The plane, flown by a 74-year-old veteran racer and Hollywood stunt pilot, disintegrated in a ball of dust, debris and bodies as screams of “Oh my God!” spread through the crowd.
National Transportation Safety Board officials were on the scene Saturday to determine what caused Jimmy Leeward to lose control of the plane, and they were looking at amateur video clips that appeared to show a small piece of the aircraft falling to the ground before the crash. Witnesses who looked at photos of the part said it appeared to be a “trim tab,” which helps pilots keep control of the aircraft.
Reno police also provided a GPS mapping system to help investigators re-create the crash scene.
“Pictures and video appear to show a piece of the plane was coming off,” NTSB spokesman Mark Rosekind said at a news conference. “A component has been recovered. We have not identified the component or if it even came from the airplane. … We are going to focus on that.”
The dead so far included the pilot and eight spectators. Officials said 54 people were transported to hospitals, but more came in on their own. Eight remained in critical condition late Saturday and nine were in serious condition.
Despite the large number of dead and injured, witnesses and people familiar with the race say the toll could have been much worse. The plane crashed in a section of box seats that was located in front of the grandstand area where most people sat.
Some credit the pilot with preventing the crash from being far more deadly by avoiding the grandstand section with a last-minute climb.
Ambulances rushed to the scene, and officials said fans did an amazing job in tending to the injured. Just that morning, the 25 emergency workers at the air show had done a drill for such a large-scale emergency.
The crash marked the first time spectators had been killed since the races began 47 years ago. Twenty pilots including Leeward have died in that time, officials said.
The disaster prompted renewed calls for race organizers to consider ending the event because of the dangers. Officials said they would look at everything as they work to understand what happened.