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3 dead, 56 injured in horrific Reno air show crash

By Scott Sonner

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 17 2011 12:16 a.m. MDT

Spectators and debris are seen after a P-51 Mustang airplane crashed at the Reno Air show on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 in Reno Nev.. The plane plunged into the stands at the event in what an official described as a "mass casualty situation."

Grass Valley Union, Tim O'Brien

RENO, Nevada — A World War II-era fighter plane flown by a veteran Hollywood stunt pilot plunged Friday into the edge of the grandstands during a popular air race, killing three people, injuring more than 50 spectators and creating a horrific scene strewn with smoking debris.

The plane, piloted by 74-year-old Jimmy Leeward, spiraled out of control without warning 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.

Authorities are investigating the cause, but an official with the event said there are indications that mechanical problems are to blame.

Maureen Higgins of Alabama, who has been coming to the air races for 16 years, said the pilot was on his third lap of a race when he lost control.

She was sitting about 30 yards from the crash and watched in horror as the man in front of her started bleeding after 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 Leeward, of Ocala, Florida, a veteran airman and movie stunt pilot who named his P-51 Mustang fighter plane the "Galloping Ghost," according to Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races.

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

Stephanie Kruse, a spokeswoman for the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority, told The Associated Press that emergency crews took a total of 56 injured 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 non-life-threatening.

"This is a very large incident, probably one of the largest this community has seen in decades," Kruse told The Associated Press. "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, a class of fighter plane that can fly at speeds in excess of 500 mph (805 kph), crashed into a box-seat area in front of the grandstand at about 4:30 p.m., race spokesman Mike Draper said.

Houghton 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 O'Brien of Grass Valley, California, has attended the Reno air races every year since 1973. He said he was photographing the event when he saw the plane pitch violently upward, roll and then head straight down about 100 yards (90 meters) away.

O'Brien said that from the photos he took, it looked like a piece of the plane's tail called a "trim tab" had fallen off, which is what he thinks caused the plane's sudden climb.

O'Brien said the plane hit the ground and "absolutely disintegrated."

"The propeller (was) spinning very fast, and there was a lot of mass coming down all at once," he said. It was a "very violent impact."

Afterward, there were a number of people standing around, and "all we could do was hug each other," O'Brien said.

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