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Calm chaos followed Nevada air show disaster

By Scott Sonner

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Sept. 19 2011 1:41 a.m. MDT

NTSB Senior Air Safety Investigator Tim Monville speaks to the media during a news conference in Martinsburg, W.V. on Sunday. Sept. 18, 2011. John "Flash" Mangan, 54, the pilot of a 1950s-era plane that crashed during an airshow was climbing and amid an acrobatic roll when the aircraft suddenly began its deadly descent, the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday.

The Journal, Chris Jackson, AP photo

RENO, Nev. — Amid the horrific aftermath of the nation's deadliest air racing disaster, a crash that killed nine and sent about 70 people to Reno-area hospitals, a sort of calm pervaded.

Witnesses were spattered with blood and pieces of flesh, yet video of the scene shows paramedics, police and spectators attending to the wounded with a control that seems contradictory to the devastation.

Officials and those in the tightly-knit air racing community credit not only a detailed plan for just such a crash, but the type of people at the event: pilots, veterans and others accustomed to dealing with a high-pressure situation.

Doctors, nurses and military veterans from the crowd volunteered their services to emergency crews, said Reno Fire Battalion Chief Tim Spencer, a 29-year veteran who has worked at the air races for 27 years. Those without medical skills helped firefighters transport the injured.

"It wasn't uncommon to see one firefighter and three people in civilian clothes carrying a litter to the proper area" for evacuation, Tim Spencer said. "Everybody pulled together perfectly and worked side by side."

Such cooperation helped save Ed Larson, one of the victims cut down by a wall of shrapnel kicked up when the Galloping Ghost, a souped-up WWII-era P-51 Mustang fighter plane, crashed into the VIP section Friday, disintegrating over a two- to three-acre area.

Metal fragments and wreckage hit Larson, 59, in the head and back and legs, shredding his calf and severing his Achilles tendon. He was knocked unconscious but came to as he was being loaded on a transport helicopter.

"All I saw was a real coordinated effort," Larson said from a wheelchair at Renown Regional Medical Center, which handled 36 of the most severely injured patients, including two who died.

The carnage left even seasoned emergency room surgeons and rescue workers shaken.

"This is the worst I've seen," said Dr. Mike Morkin, the emergency services director at Renown. He did his trauma training at Cook County Hospital in Chicago and helped in the aftermath of Chicago's Paxton Hotel fire that killed 19 people in 1993. Yet he said he had never seen so many patients with such severe injuries at one time.

Paramedics, police and firefighters, hospitals and event organizers had drilled for such a disaster, some just hours earlier.

"This happened so fast, there was just a sense of shock. But people were very calm. You know, they didn't know me. They came, held my hand, told me I was going to be all right," Noah Joraanstad, a 25-year-old commercial airline pilot from Anchorage, Alaska, told The Associated Press from his hospital bed at Northern Nevada Medical Center in Sparks. "They walked into a scene where people were amputated, whatever, and just carnage everywhere, and they decided to help. To me, those were the real heroes."

Emergency workers were quickly putting into practice the skills they'd learned in drills. They separated the wounded depending on the severity of injuries as ambulances and transport helicopters moved in. A Vietnam-era Huey helicopter from a military display was pressed into service to fly victims to the hospital.

"It was triage on the tarmac," said David Edgecomb, 41, a volunteer security guard from Paradise, Calif., who said he saw a man in an electric wheelchair dead in the spectator area. Edgecomb cut strips of bunting from the VIP boxes into strips to be used for tourniquets, while larger pieces of the material were used to cover body parts.

The Rev. Thomas Babu was at St. Michael's Catholic Church four blocks from the airport when he saw the fire engines and ambulances streaming past.

"I thought it was my duty to go there," said Babu, 37.

He held hands and prayed with the family of a woman who had been killed.

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