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10 dead in Nev. air crash shared love of aviation

Image: Memorial for Reno crash victims
Jodi Handel points out a plane in the sky to her grandson Cage Handel, 4, at a memorial site for victims of an airplane crash in Reno, Nev., on Monday. The Reno Air Races were canceled after pilot Jimmy Leeward's plane crashed on Friday. Several people were killed, including Leeward, and dozens were injured.Paul Sakuma / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

They came from every corner to the Nevada desert to watch the nation's premier air race, a daring competition between speed-hungry pilots that pushed the limits of safety. They all had one thing in common: a deep affection for aviation.

One was a wheelchair-bound recent college graduate who was thrilled to be at the races. Another was a former airline pilot who owned a vintage airplane. Still another was at his first race, attending it at the urging of his father and brother.

They were among the 10 people who died when one of the planes in the race, a WWII-era P-51 Mustang fighter plane called The Galloping Ghost, plunged into the VIP section. The 74-year-old stunt pilot also died in the nation's deadliest air racing disaster.

The shrapnel from the crash sprayed the crowd, leaving dozens more with severed limbs, including fingers, legs and arms.

Since the crash, authorities in Reno have been flooded with calls from around the country, as relatives and friends worried about the whereabouts of spectators. Medical officials used fingerprints and DNA to identify the remains of the victims.

"We've had some emotional calls, and it's because of the uncertainty," said Kathy Jacobs, executive director of the Crisis Call Center in Reno. "It's terrifying for those individuals not to know what has happened to their loved ones."

A Kansas family saw four of its members taken to a hospital for serious injuries after the crash.

The matriarch, Cherie Elvin, went missing after the plane hit ground. The injured included her husband, Chuck Elvin, their two sons, Bill and Brian Elvin, and Brian Elvin's wife, Linda. All had lost some part of their leg, according to a website used by the family.

The National Championship Air Races draw thousands of people to Reno every September to watch various military and civilian planes race. Local schools often held field trips there, and a local sports book took wagers on the outcomes.

During the races, planes flew wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet (15 meters) off the ground. The competitors follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft. Pilots reached speeds of up to 500 mph (804 kph).

The pilot, James Leeward, was the 20th pilot to die at the races since it began 47 years ago, but Friday's crash was the first where spectators were killed. Some of the injured described being coated in aviation fuel that burned.

Leeward and his team had modified the plane beyond recognition, taking a full 10 feet (3 meters) off the wingspan and cutting the ailerons — the back edges of the main wings used to control balance — by roughly 28 inches (71 centimeters).

Leeward was a veteran air racer from Florida who flew in Hollywood films. His father worked in aviation and taught him the trade. He was married with two adult sons. Leeward loved speeding, on the ground or in the air, and had recently taken up racing cars.

Among the others killed were Sharon Stewart, 47, of Reno; Greg Morcom, 47, of Marysville, Washington; George Hewitt, 60, and Wendy Hewitt, 57, both of Fort Mohave, Arizona; Michael Wogan, 22, of Scottsdale, Arizona; and Regina Bynum, 53, of San Angelo, Texas.

Stewart had nine children, four still alive. She lived with her longtime boyfriend in a Reno trailer home and rarely worked because he preferred she stayed at home while he provided for both of them.

Dave Haskin, 50, was working with Stewart cleaning trash for $10 an hour at the race grounds. When he saw the plane go straight up, he said he knew something was wrong. Moments later, the plane exploded on the ground.

"There were arms and legs and this guy whose torso got cut in half," Haskin said.

Morcom was visiting the air races for the first time with his father and brother, who had attended many times. Morcom worked for a private fish hatchery for 10 years, then switched to construction. He lived with his elderly parents and took care of them.

"He had really been looking forward to it," said his older brother, Ron Morcom. "He wasn't a pilot, but he would go up with my father in his plane whenever he had a chance."

The Hewitts attended the show with a Washington-based group of vintage airplane owners. George Hewitt flew as a pilot with Air Canada for more than 40 years. The Seattle Times reported that Hewitt owned a small post-World War II plane originally built by the same company that made the model Leeward crashed in Reno.

Bynum's husband, Jerry Bynum, said the couple was enjoying the race from box seats with five friends when the plane crashed about 300 feet (90 meters) away. She was struck in the face and arm by the debris. Everyone else in their group was untouched.

"Why did that one piece seek her out?" her husband, a pilot, said during a telephone interview. "I just don't understand it at all, and I don't think I'll ever get an answer."

Wogan was sitting in an area for wheelchairs with his father when the plane hit the ground. He, like two of his brothers, was diagnosed at an early age with muscular dystrophy and was wheelchair-bound his entire life. He had no way of protecting himself from the flying debris.

"Michael liked to get out and travel, and he was so excited about getting on a plane as part of this trip," said his brother, James Wogan, in a statement.

Michael Wogan studied finance, graduated with honors in May from Arizona State University and didn't consider himself disabled, said Cindy Simonsen, a family friend who sat with Wogan on the board of a nonprofit organization that helps low-income families. He ran his own business and was gearing up to start a new one, she said.

"It was never enough," she said. "He was always going."

The Arizona Republic reported that his father lost an eye and fingers and suffered serious facial injuries in the crash.

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Associated Press writers Michelle Rindels and Cristina Silva in Las Vegas, Ken Ritter in Reno and Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.