As thousands watched in horror, a World War II-era fighter plane competing in a Nevada event described as a "car race in the sky" suddenly pitched upward, rolled and did a nose-dive toward the crowded grandstand.
The plane, flown by a 74-year-old veteran Hollywood stunt pilot, then slammed into the tarmac in front of VIP box seats and blew to pieces in front the pilot's family and a tight-knit group of friends who attend the annual Reno Air Races.
"It absolutely disintegrated," said Tim O'Brien of Grass Valley Calif., who attends the races every year. "I've never seen anything like that before."
Reno police say nine people were killed and more than 50 were injured amid a horrific scene strewn with smoking debris. The deaths include seven who were killed on the tarmac, including the pilot, and two others who died at hospitals.
Authorities said it appears a mechanical failure with the P-51 Mustang — a class of fighter plane that can fly in excess of 500 mph — was to blame. Some credit the pilot, Jimmy Leeward, with preventing the crash from being far more deadly.
Jim Harker, Leeward's friend and a pilot himself, told Reno Public Radio's Brandon Rittiman he witnessed the plane go directly up and then start coming down directly toward the grandstand. Jim Harker said that at the last minute, the plane's nose started to lift.
"It looks like he tried to pull to get out of the stands, 'cause he was headed right to the stands to start with," he says.
The plane missed the grandstands where the bulk of the people were, but crashed into spectators in the box seating. The box-seat area holds 300 to 400 people, while the main grandstands area holds several thousand.
Leeward had been flying in the races since the 1970s. Crashes at the Reno Air Races aren't uncommon — in fact the National Transportation Safety Board has three staffers at the event as a standard practice. Organizers say this is the first accident involving spectators.
Maureen Higgins of Alabama, who has been coming to the show for 16 years, said the pilot was on his third lap when he lost control about 4:30 p.m.
She was sitting about 30 yards away from the crash and watched in horror as the man in front of her started bleeding after a piece of 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."
Stephanie Kruse, a spokeswoman for the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority, told The Associated Press the incident was "probably one of the largest this community has seen in decades."
"The community is pulling together to try to deal with the scope of it," she said. "The hospitals have certainly geared up and staffed up to deal with it."
Race President Mike Houghton said at a news conference hours after the crash that the rest of the races have been canceled as the NTSB investigates.
Houghton described Leeward as "a good friend. Everybody knows him. It's a tight-knit family. He's been here for a long, long time."
The National Championship Air Races draws thousands of people to Reno every year in September to watch various military and civilian planes race. They also have attracted scrutiny in the past over safety concerns, including four pilots killed in 2007 and 2008. It was such a concern that local school officials once considered whether they should not allow student field trips at the event.
During the competition, planes fly wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the sagebrush at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.
The FAA and air race organizers spend months preparing for air races as they develop a plan involving pilot qualification, training and testing along with a layout for the course. The FAA inspects pilots' practice runs and brief pilots on the route maneuvers and emergency procedures.
Nonetheless, the crash renewed questions about whether the event should end permanently.
"That's way too far in advance for us to look at," Houghton said.
Doing away with the event would prove tricky; it generates tens of millions of dollars for the local economy each year. Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada doesn't want to do away with the races, but he says he wants them to be safer.
"The pilots themselves know the risk that they're taking, but what the safety and the concern should be is for the general public, who come out to watch these races," he said. "That should be priority number one."
The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation into the crash, but it could be months before there's a final report.
Reno Public Radio's Brandon Rittiman contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press
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