RENO, Nev. — The death toll rose to nine Saturday in an air race crash in Reno as investigators determined that several spectators were killed on impact as the 1940s-model plane appeared to lose a piece of its tail before slamming like a missile into a crowded tarmac.
Moments earlier, thousands had arched their necks skyward and watched the planes speed by just a few hundred feet off the ground before some noticed a strange gurgling engine noise from above. Seconds later, the World War II-era P-51 Mustang dubbed the Galloping Ghost pitched oddly upward, twirled and took an immediate nosedive into a section of VIP box seats.
Flown by veteran racer and Hollywood stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74, of Ocala, the plane disintegrated in a ball of dust and debris as screams of "Oh my God!" spread through the crowd.
National Transportation Safety Board officials were on the scene Saturday to determine what caused Leeward to lose control of the plane, and they were looking at amateur video clips that appeared to show a small piece of the aircraft falling to the ground before the crash.
People who saw photos said the lost piece appeared to be an "elevator trim tab," which helps control upward and downward motion, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Reno police also provided a GPS mapping system to help investigators re-create the crash scene.
"Pictures and video appear to show a piece of the plane was coming off," NTSB spokesman Mark Rosekind said at a news conference. "A component has been recovered. We have not identified the component or if it even came from the airplane … We are going to focus on that."
The dead so far included the pilot and eight spectators. Officials said 54 people were transported to hospitals, but more came in on their own. Eight remained in critical condition Saturday and nine were in serious condition.
Despite the large number of dead and injured, witnesses and people familiar with the race say the toll could have been much worse had the plane gone down in the larger crowd area of the stands. The plane crashed in a section of box seats that was located in front of the grandstand area where most people sat.
"This one could have been much worse if the plane had hit a few rows higher up," said Don Berliner, president of the Society of Air Racing Historians and a former Reno Air Races official. "We could be talking hundreds of deaths."
Witnesses described a horrible scene after the plane struck the crowd and sent up a brown cloud of dust billowing in the wind. When it cleared moments later, motionless bodies lay strewn across the ground, some clumped together, while others stumbled around bloodied and in shock.
"I saw the spinner, the wings, the canopy just coming right at us. It hit directly in front of us, probably 50 to 75 feet," said Ryan Harris, of Round Mountain, Nev. "The next thing I saw was a wall of debris going up in the air. That's what I got splashed with. In the wall of debris I noticed there were pieces of flesh."
Ambulances rushed to the scene, and officials said fans did an amazing job in tending to the injured. Just that morning, the 25 emergency workers at the air show had done a drill for such a large-scale emergency.
"We run through what we do in the event of an incident," said Ken Romero, director of the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority. "We walked through how to respond, where the multicasualty incident bus is and what is on the bus (by way of equipment), how to set up the treatment zones and how to triage."
Leeward, the owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team, was a well-known racing pilot. His website says he has flown more than 120 races and served as a stunt pilot for numerous movies, including Cloud Dancer, Dragonfly, Amelia and The Tuskegee Airmen.
The crash marked the first time spectators had been killed since the races began 47 years ago in Reno. Twenty pilots including Leeward have died in that time, race officials said.
It is the only air race of its kind in the United States. Planes at the yearly event fly wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the ground at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph.
Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.