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 P-51 Mustang dubbed the Galloping Ghost pitched oddly upward, twirled and took an immediate nosedive into a section of white box seats.
The plane, flown by a 74-year-old veteran racer and Hollywood stunt pilot, disintegrated in a ball of dust, debris and bodies as screams of "Oh my God!" spread through the crowd.
National Transportation Safety Board officials were on the scene Saturday to determine what caused Jimmy 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. Witnesses who looked at photos of the part said it appeared to be an "elevator trim tab," which helps pilots keep control of the aircraft.
Video apparently taken from the stands and posted on YouTube after several other planes raced by in the air.
Reno police also provided a GPS mapping system to help investigators recreate the crash scene.
Investigators said they also recovered part of the tail section, where the tab is located.
A tour near the site offered to journalists Saturday evening revealed debris spread in a fan-shape over more than an acre around a crater roughly 3 feet deep and as much as 8 feet across. Based on the crater's location, it appears the P-51 Mustang went straight down in the first few rows of VIP box seats, or about 65 feet in front of the leading edge of the grandstand.
Yellow crime tape surrounded the scene and spectator seats remained askew.
Among the dead were the pilot and eight spectators. Officials said 69 people were treated at hospitals, including 36 who have been released and 31 who remain there. Nine were in critical condition late Saturday.
Among the dead identified by the Washoe County, Nev., medical examiner was spectator Greg Morcom, 47, of Washington state. He was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash, said of Seattle.
Among other spectators Michael Wogan, 22, of Phoenix, perished at the scene and his father, Bill Wogan, lost his right eye, some fingers on his right hand, suffered over 100 fractures to his face, and remains in critical condition at a Reno hospital, .
The names of the other seven fatalities were not released.
Doctors who treated the injured said it was among the most severe situations they had ever seen because of the large number of people, including at least two children younger than 18 who are not among those in critical condition.
Injuries included major head injuries, facial trauma and limb injuries, including amputations, said Dr. Myron Gomes, chief trauma surgeon at Renown Regional Medical Center.
Could have been worse
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.
Some credit the pilot with preventing the crash from being far more deadly by avoiding the grandstand section with a last-minute climb, although it's impossible at this point to know his thinking as he was confronted with the disaster and had just seconds to respond.
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 shocked.
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 like this.
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.
The disaster prompted renewed calls for race organizers to consider ending the event because of the dangers. Officials said they would look at everything as they work to understand what happened.
Another crash, on Saturday, came at an airshow in Martinsburg, West Virginia, when post-World War II plane, a T-28, crashed and burst into flames. The pilot was killed.
In Reno, the Mustang that disintegrated into the crowd had minor crashes almost exactly 40 years ago after its engine failed. According to two websites that track P-51s that are still flying, it made a belly landing away from the Reno airport. The NTSB report on the Sept. 18, 1970, incident says the engine failed during an air race and it crash landed short of the runway.