As they heard the noise of a crash below, brothers Gerald and Rich Bramer stood up to see what was going on during the U.S. 500 on Sunday at Michigan Speedway.
"The next thing I know, a tire was flying in the air right at us," Gerald Bramer said.Three spectators were killed and six others injured when the one-car crash hurled a tire and other car parts into the grandstand at the fourth turn. It was the first time in more than a decade that spectators were killed at a major auto race.
All the dead and injured were adults, the track said. None of the dead were immediately identified.
Dr. Gregory Baumann, the chief medical director at Michigan Speedway, said two people died instantly from the impact of the debris. A third person was taken to a track medical unit, where resuscitation failed.
Six spectators were taken by helicopter to Foote Hospital in Jackson. Hospital spokeswoman Robin Kirkpatrick said the six had injuries ranging from a fractured leg to neck and back pain. All were expected to be released Sunday night, she said.
The area where the fans were hit included a block of seats that the hospital had complimentary tickets for, and one of the injured worked at the hospital, Kirkpatrick said.
Gerald Bramer said he threw up his arm to block the tire from Mexican driver Adrian Fernandez's car as it brushed by him. It hit Rich Bramer in the back, but neither was injured seriously.
Becky Lutgen, the news director of Lansing's WLNS-TV, was at the track with her boyfriend watching Fernandez's car as it rounded the bend. She said they didn't see the tire from his car until it hit the stands and then landed about four or five rows behind them.
"It ricocheted in the stands and came to rest between some rows. It went by so fast," Lutgen said.
Fernandez, the pole winner for the CART race, was running third at the time of the crash and was left with bruised knees. His car slid into the wall on lap 175 of the 250-lap race, run on a 2-mile, high-banked oval.
This was the first spectator death at the track since 1969 when one fan was killed during a Trans-Am race on the road course.
At the 1987 Indy 500, a tire bounded off the track, landing in the top row of the grandstand and killing a fan. There have been other spectator deaths since at drag races and other auto events.
The grandstand area where the spectators were hit was cleared immediately and a medical examiner's investigation was begun.
The U.S. 500, run before a crowd of about 50,000, continued after the accident and was won by Greg Moore.
"People came here to watch us race and put on a good show, which we did today," Moore said. "But that tragedy definitely puts a damper on it."
Jimmy Vasser, the runner-up, added, "It's terrible, a tragedy. We don't want to see that happen."
The debris cleared a concrete wall and a debris fence before reaching the spectators.
Greg Penske, president of Penske Motorsports Inc., which owns the track, said one of the victims was in the eighth row and another in about the 10th.
"The wall is 4 feet above the track surface and there's 11 feet of fence and cable," he said. "So there's 15 feet from the track surface to the top of the fence."
Gene Haskett, the speedway president, said there is no way to say how tall such a fence should be to prevent this kind of an accident.
"It's impossible to say how high something would bounce or fly over," he said. "Thirty-one years of racing here on the oval and this being our first incident of this nature is just something that's very, very unfortunate."
The injured, all from Michigan, were identified as David Silva, 35, of Dearborn; Gerald Bramer, 31, and Richard Bramer, 20, both of Livonia; Doris Shuman, 70, of West Bloomfield; Joyce Thompson, 48, of Spring Arbor, and Steve Dawson, 31, of Lansing.
Silva, the Bramers and Thompson were all treated and released.
The track set up a telephone hotline for people trying to learn if friends or family were among the dead and injured. The number is (517) 592-6666.