Melania Trump Club

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Plane falling from the sky directly toward him

The noise was "hellish," a "big crunch," followed by stunned silence and then screams. The smell was acrid, spilled aviation fuel and burnt oil. And the sight was enough to keep Gerald Lent awake for more than 24 hours: The massive plane falling from the sky directly toward him. The cloud of shattered tarmac and razor-sharp shrapnel. The body parts. The first responders. The dazed survivors at a storied air show that careened from festive to deadly in seconds. On what should have been Day 4 of the National Championship Air Races in Reno, federal investigators arrived Saturday to start piecing together what brought the Galloping Ghost — a World War II plane with a flashy pilot in a much-anticipated race — to earth in violent fashion. The crash killed seven people on the tarmac, including the pilot, and two more died later at the hospital. Dozens were wounded. Before Friday's disaster, the event had claimed the lives of 19 pilots since 1972, but never a spectator. As the death toll from the Friday crash rose and suspicion fell on a missing piece from the plane's tail, survivors grappled with opposing emotions. Many worried about the future of a beloved aviation event, even as they were haunted by images of graphic horror they likened to a battlefield or a terrorist attack. "People were looking for relatives and their personal goods," Lent, a retired optometrist, recounted Saturday, still sounding shocked. "These guys were trying to pick up this leg. Legs are heavy. They tried to put it on a gurney. They couldn't. This gal in the bleacher was … screaming about a foot, but her feet were OK. We didn't see the foot until later. It was in the bleachers." Friday at Reno-Stead Airport, where the suburbs give way to sagebrush-covered hills, started calm and festive. American flags fluttered atop grandstands. Vendors pitched kettle corn and lemonade. Banners touted downtown casinos where aviation buffs could place bets on the races. Early in the day, Joshua Cross, an 18-year-old from Pomona, bought a red T-shirt with a picture of the plane he was most excited to see: the Galloping Ghost. The college freshman's father is a private pilot, and he's been coming to the Reno races since 2007. He especially loves the souped-up vintage planes. Reno Mayor Bob Cashell told reporters that the air race spectator fatalities were the first in four decades. The Reno Air Race Association was founded in 1964, according to its Facebook page. "This is the first time in 40 years, I think, that we've had a visitor injured or killed," Cashell said Saturday. "We've lost some pilots, but we've never had a major catastrophe." When asked if the high-speed air race was held too close to public viewers, Cashell responded: "I'm not an expert on that. It's going to be up to the airport authority and it's going to be up to the air race board, and it's going to be up to these guys," referring to the NTSB investigators. "We would like to see if we can keep it open," the mayor said about the air race and its future. One local hospital, Renown Medical Center, received 34 patients, six of whom were in critical condition as of Saturday evening, a spokeswoman said. Two of the six critical patients suffered major head injuries and their prognosis is "guarded," according to Dr. Myron Gomez, chief of trauma services. Two patients -- a male and a female -- died, the hospital said Friday. Dr. Mike Morkin, the medical director of emergency services at the hospital, was on duty when the call about the crash came in Friday. "The severity of this accident was the worst I've seen since I've been at Renown," Morkin, a 16-year veteran at the hospital, said, adding "it was traumatic." Renown South Meadows Medical Center received and discharged five patients, the hospital said Saturday. St. Mary's Hospital in Reno said it had accepted 28 patients from the accident: two were in critical condition, seven in serious condition, and five in fair condition as of Saturday afternoon. Fourteen other patients were treated and released Friday. The pilot, identified as Jimmy Leeward, a real estate developer from Ocala, Florida, was killed in the crash, according to a show official. The 74-year-old was flying a P-51 Mustang. Saturday races were canceled in the wake of the crash, the show said. A memorial service scheduled for the pilot in Reno was also canceled because his family left the area, said Valerie Miller, a race spokeswoman. A day before the crash, in an interview from Airshow TV, Leeward expressed confidence about his prospects in the race -- while hinting that his team would fly even faster in the days to come. "We're as fast as anybody in the field, and maybe even faster," he said. "We've been playing poker since last Monday, so we're ready to show a couple more cards (so) we'll see what happens." Several witnesses were calling the pilot a hero because he maneuvered the plane away from the crowded grandstands at the last moment. Ben Cissell said the plane crashed about 100 feet from where he was seated. "I think that pilot in the last seconds pulled up because he saw the bleachers and saved about 200 or 300 others," Cissell said. Kim Fonda said she also saw the plane streaking toward where she was seated in the grandstand. "I closed my eyes and said, 'I am going to die now,' " Fonda said. "I was literally preparing to die and then he jerked the plane away and it landed like 25 feet from us. I want his family to know he was a hero." Video of the crash, posted on YouTube, showed a plane plummeting from the sky, sending up clouds of dust and debris. Shocked spectators rose to their feet. Another witness, Greg Mills, said the pilot "didn't have enough altitude to pull up," with the aircraft shuddering before slamming to the ground about 50 to 75 yards from where he was standing. The plane, called the "Galloping Ghost," was taking part in a qualifying round in the "unlimited class" division of the air race when it went down around 4:15 p.m. PT Friday, said Mike Draper, the show spokesman. The final rounds had been slated for the weekend.

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