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Reno air races: 3 witnesses recount crash, want races to return

September 17, 2011 |  5:15 pm

People rush to help injured spectators after the crash of a vintage World War Two P-51 Mustang fighter plane near the grandstand at the Reno air races Friday

The crash at the annual National Championship Air Races in Reno killed at least nine people, injured scores more -- and left a mark even on those physically unscathed. Here, three people who were there recount the crash of the P-51 Mustang, the ensuing chaos and their own reactions.

All three want the races to return.

Photos: Reno air race crash

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Tony Carson, 35, of Reno; Boy Scout troop leader who saw crash from afar and raced to the field

Carson was overseeing the pancake fundraiser for Boy Scout Troop 88 of Lemmon Valley, Nev. Selling breakfast at the air races is the troop's most lucrative fundraiser; in one day this week, the troop sold $600 in tickets.

Carson was camped out about 100 yards behind the grandstands, in the warren of streets and weedy RV lots outside Reno-Stead Airport. Carson has no aviation background, but he's attended the air races for most of his life. When he saw the Galloping Ghost pulling up, he immediately thought, "There's trouble."

Full coverage: Deadly crash at Reno air show

From Carson's point of view, it looked as if the plane was doing a barrel roll before it disappeared in front of the grandstands. Carson knew one of his scouts, Ben Fritz, 13, was inside. "As soon as I saw it hit, I ran," Carson said. "I had to find him."

Carson waded through a dazed mass of people leaving the airfield. "They were covered in oil and maybe blood. They had cuts on their arms and legs," he said. Some clutched their stomachs and grimaced. Others had ashen faces.

Near the main entrance, Carson found Ben, unharmed. Carson exhaled.

Ben had been near the pits, about half a mile from the grandstands, checking out the racing planes and watching some of the heats. Then, "that plane went right down," he said, visibly shaken by the memory. "It scared us. It really scared us."

After Carson found Ben, he took a peek at the wreckage. The plane had been smashed to pieces, with what appeared to be its engine flung far from everything else. In the VIP section, where the plane hit, tipped-over chairs and barriers were a testament to how onlookers had hurriedly tried to flee.

Paramedics were herding some people toward a swarm of ambulances, while others drifted over by themselves. Some people sobbed or shouted, but overall it was an eerily quiet scene compared with one of thundering planes and cheering crowds.

"It's honestly weird not to hear the planes," Carson said Saturday, as the once-boisterous airfield took on the solemnity of a ghost town.

Carson said he hoped the races would return next year.

"They better be back," he said. "You can walk across the street and something can happen. This is a community thing that everybody wants to see come back."


Joshua Cross, 18, of Pomona, in the grandstands during the crash

Cross, a freshman at Mt. San Antonio College in California, has been going to the air races since 2007. His dad is a private pilot, so Cross has grown up around planes and someday wants to get his pilot's license. He's long been enamored of the air races' souped-up World War II-era planes, one of which has propellers that rotate counterclockwise. "You see the planes race and you love them," he said.

On Friday morning, Cross bought a red T-shirt with a picture of the plane he was most excited to see this year: the Galloping Ghost.

The plane was supposed to appear at the races in 2009 but didn't. Last year, Cross recalled, it tore past the other planes in its first race and walloped the rest of the field in its second. Its third race, where it was to compete against some of the event's fastest aircraft, was canceled because of weather conditions. "We didn't get to see what it could do," Cross said.

This year, Cross was rooting for the Galloping Ghost to soar past the plane Strega, a repeat winner.

"Now, I can't believe that plane almost killed me," he said Saturday.

During Friday's race, Strega was in the lead, Cross recalled. Voodoo was second. Galloping Ghost, or plane No. 177, was next. The planes whipped around a turn and then blasted down a straightaway at speeds around 400 mph. All of a sudden, Galloping Ghost pulled up.

Cross, who was sitting in Section C of the grandstands, expected the plane to straighten out and fly above the other racers until everything was OK. Usually, an in-trouble pilot radios a "mayday," which the announcer relays to the crowd.

"There was no mayday," Cross said.

Suddenly, the Galloping Ghost turned upside down and began arcing toward the grandstands. There was no time to run and nowhere to go. "I'm a Christian and I was saying, 'OK, God, this is how I'm going to meet you,'" Cross said.

Then the plane rotated slightly, just enough for it to spare the greatest mass of people. "It was as if he was pulling back to avoid the grandstands," Cross said, "but I doubt he was conscious at that point."

The focus of Cross' prayers switched. "God, please help those people," he thought. "I knew right then and there some of them were dead."

When the plane slammed into the asphalt, it made a crater that Cross said was about 15 feet wide and a few feet deep. The crash tossed debris a couple of hundred feet and appeared to have snapped off part of the engine. "I saw a couple people fly away from the force of the impact," he said.

The smoke cleared quickly. Much of the crowd froze in the stands as emergency workers charged toward the jumble of bodies and wreckage and the wounded screamed.

"Everyone wanted to help and do something, and nothing could be done," he said. He and his dad prayed: "That those people knew the lord and were ready to meet him. We prayed for people who lost people and families who have to cope with that loss."

He added: "We prayed for the future of the event. We don't want it to go away."

After about 20 minutes, the announcer urged the crowd to leave. In past years, fans chattered all the way out. Now, there was mostly silence. "Those who saw it knew it was horrible," Cross said. "Those who didn't see it knew it was horrible from the sound and all the people dead."

That night, Cross dreamed he was piloting the Galloping Ghost. He tried to steer it away from the grandstands. Then he woke up.

"I will never get it out of my head," he said. "It will be burned in my memory until the day I die."


Gerald DeRego, 63, sitting in box seats about 100 feet from the crash

DeRego, who lives in Penn Valley, Calif., and runs a car dismantling company, is a former Air Force pilot who's been coming to the air races for 15 years. On Friday afternoon, he had been sitting in box A56, watching a race that would soon turn tragic.

About half a dozen planes had completed three or four laps -- he can't remember which -- around a course marked by pylons. The leading planes zipped past. The Galloping Ghost, which was in the second group of planes, made the last turn before the start-finish line.

Then, DeRego said, "He pitched up violently." While pilots normally pull up when they're in trouble -- the higher the altitude, the more options a pilot has during a crisis -- it's usually in a much smoother manner.

The Ghost reached its apex and started to roll. To the untrained eye, it resembled an aerial acrobatic move called a Split S. But to DeRego, the pilot had lost "elevator authority" and therefore control of the plane.

"As soon as he rolled, I knew he was going to hit the crowd somewhere," he said. "Clearly at that point there was no possible way he was going to survive that."

DeRego's mind raced. "I could see the airplane coming," he said. "He was in a steep dive. I thought, 'Is he going to hit before us, on us or after us?' " He and others got up to run, knocking down chairs in their path.

As the nose came down at a steep angle -- 70 or 80 degrees, he said -- the plane rotated a bit, enough to likely spare a number of onlookers. But it still slammed into an area about 100 to 150 feet away from DeRego, digging out a chunk of the ground.

"It was a hellish noise. It was like a big crunch," he said. "The shock wave knocked me down." He landed on another man. Then, perhaps because of his years in the military, he started crawling, "like a lizard on a hot rock."

He hid under some chairs in case stuff started flying. He smelled a mix of aviation fuel and oil. He braced himself for a fireball that never came. After a bit, he stood up. A young boy who'd been sitting in the same box was screaming.

"I took that as good news. It meant he was still breathing," DeRego said.

He started toward the crash, thinking he could help. But when he saw a swarm of first responders tending to the wounded, he realized he'd just get in the way. He turned around and headed back toward his RV, part of a crowd splattered with oil and blood, many too shocked to speak.

"You start to feel like, 'Wow, I almost died.' Then I realized thousands of people had the exact same experience," he said.

Afterward, he rejoined the people in his RV lot who've attended the races for years. They did an unofficial head count. Everyone was OK. "Then I had a drink of gin," he said. "And I just kind of sat there and processed it. ... I just thank the Lord that he chose to protect me."

Saturday morning, some people clamored to go back to the grandstands in hopes of sitting down and coming to terms with what they'd seen. DeRego sat in his RV instead.

"If a pilot made it to the field and crashed, you could say at least he died doing what he loved. They all shake hands with the devil -- or God, however you want to put it -- before they go out there," he said. "You know something like this could happen, but you do it anyway. ...

"The people in the stands, I get choked up about that. They were just out there for the day."

He feared the tragedy would spell the end of the air races. The audience's proximity to the planes is part of the event's appeal: It thrills both the non-aviators and the enthusiasts who buy recordings of plane engines purring. "They could put the races five miles away, but no one would want to watch it," he said.


Pilot Jimmy Leeward was an experienced racer

Reno event has claimed 19 other pilots since 1972

Reno air races have had history of safety issues, troubles

-- Ashley Powers in Reno, Nev.

Photo: People rush to help injured spectators after the crash of a vintage World War Two P-51 Mustang fighter plane near the grandstand at the Reno air races Friday. Credit: Reuters / Brian Brunetti