For a moment, the air show crowd of 300,000 stood hushed as an Italian military jet veered and tumbled into their midst.
"There was this incredible silence," Air Force Staff Sgt. John Flanagan said. "It was like the crowd was in shock. Then there was a second muffled explosion and more fire, and that's when people started running, screaming."I saw this little boy . . . his hair was all singed and the skin was coming off his face," Flanagan told the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes. "Nobody stopped to help him. They were running. We stopped the police and the police picked him up."
At least 45 people were killed and hundreds injured as three Italian jets crashed at Ramstein U.S. Air Base on Sunday. One exploded in a fireball amid the crowd, burning scores of people.
"Some were missing skin on their arms," said Stars and Stripes reporter DeeDee Arrington Doke, also a witness. "A lot had black burns, like their skin was burned black."
She said that after the crash "people started crying and screaming. The ones who were stopped were hugging each other and crying like they were saying `What are we going to do?' The ones who were running were screaming."
Jim Beichler, a University of Maryland instructor, told Stars and Stripes that when the planes collided, there was a silence.
"The plane blew up, and people started running. One guy was on fire. Other people were wrapped up in barbed wire. There were small fires all around me," he said.
Witnesses described a sunny Sunday that turned into a blackened scene of panic and suffering.
"I saw the fire ball and then the noise hit me," American witness Barry Miller told the AFN U.S. military radio network. "It sounded like somebody running into an aluminum garage or something."
The Italian Aermacchi MB 339A plowed into a row of cars and buses, bursting into a ball of flames at least 100 feet high and wide.
"We saw the fireball racing toward us, so we first threw ourselves down on the ground," said Detlef Hosser, a cameraman for the ARD television network.
A young woman who was slightly injured said she just barely escaped with her life.
"I heard the jets colliding; it was a terrible crash. My only thought was where can I go, how can I get out of this alive," the woman told the ZDF television network.
"I saw an opening among the masses of people and ran in that direction and made it. I stood there for an hour crying," she said.
Hours after the crash, the airfield was scattered with paper cups, beer cases, and turned-over lawn chairs left by fleeing spectators.
A smoky stench still clotted the air.