RENO, Nev. - (AP) - A vintage World War II-era fighter planeplunged into the grandstands Friday during a popular annual airshow, killing at least three people, injuring more than 50spectators and creating a horrific scene strewn with body parts andsmoking debris.
The plane, flown by an 80-year-old pilot, spiraled suddenly outof control and appeared to disintegrate upon impact. Bloodiedbodies were spread across the area as people tended to the victimsand ambulances rushed to the scene.
Maureen Higgins of Alabama, who has been coming to the show for16 years, said the pilot was on his third lap when he lost control.
She was sitting about 30 yards away from the crash and watchedin horror as the man in front of her started bleeding after a pieceof debris hit him in the head.
"I saw body parts and gore like you wouldn't believe it. I'mtalking an arm, a leg," Higgins said "The alive people weremissing body parts. I am not kidding you. It was gore. Unbelievablegore."
Among the dead was pilot Jimmy Leeward, 80, of Ocala, Fla., whoflew the P-51 Mustang named the "Galloping Ghost," according toMike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races.
Renown Medical Center spokeswoman Kathy Carter confirmed thattwo others died, but did not provide their identities.
Stephanie Kruse, a spokeswoman for the Regional EmergencyMedical Service Authority, told The Associated Press that emergencycrews took a total of 56 injury victims to three hospitals. Shesaid they also observed a number of people being transported byprivate vehicle, which they are not including in their count.
Kruse said of the total 56, at the time of transport, 15 wereconsidered in critical condition, 13 were serious condition withpotentially life-threatening injuries and 28 were non-serious ornon-life threatening.
"This is a very large incident, probably one of the largestthis community has seen in decades," Kruse told The AssociatedPress. "The community is pulling together to try to deal with thescope of it. The hospitals have certainly geared up and staffed upto deal with it."
The P-51 Mustang crashed into a box-seat area in front of thegrandstand at about 4:30 p.m., race spokesman Mike Draper said.Houghton said Leeward appeared to have "lost control of theaircraft," though details on why that happened weren't immediatelyknown.
KRNV-TV weatherman Jeff Martinez, who was just outside the airrace grounds at the time, said the plane veered to the right andthen "it just augered straight into the ground."
"You saw pieces and parts going everywhere," he said."Everyone is in disbelief."
Tanya Breining, off Hayward, Calif., told KTVU-TV in SanFrancisco: "It was absolute carnage ... It looked like more than abomb exploded."
Another witness, Ronald Sargis, said he was sitting in the boxseat area near the finish line.
"We could see the plane coming around the far turn - it was introuble," Sargis told KCRA-TV in Sacramento. "About six or sevenboxes down from us, it impacted into the front row."
He said the pilot appeared to do all he could to avoid crashinginto the crowd. Response teams immediately went to work, Sargissaid. After the crash Sargis went up a few rows into the grandstandto view the downed plane.
"It appeared to be just pulverized," he said.
Leeward, the owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team, was awell-known racing pilot. His website says he has flown more than120 races and served as a stunt pilot for numerous movies,including "Amelia" and "Cloud Dancer."
In an interview with the Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner last year, hedescribed how he has flown 250 types of planes and has a particularfondness for the P-51, which came into the war relatively late andwas used as a long-range bomber escort over Europe. Among thefamous pilots of the hot new fighter was WWII double ace ChuckYeager.
"They're more fun. More speed, more challenge. Speed, speed andmore speed," Leeward said.
Houghton described Leeward as "a good friend. Everybody knowshim. It's a tight knit family. He's been here for a long, longtime," Houghton said.
The National Championship Air Races draws thousands of peopleevery year in September to watch various military and civilianplanes race. They also have attracted scrutiny in the past oversafety concerns, including four pilots killed in 2007 and 2008. Itwas such a concern that local school officials once consideredwhether they should not allow student field trips at the event.
The competition is like a car race in the sky, with planesflying wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the sagebrush atspeeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval patharound pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class ofaircraft.
The FAA and air race organizers spend months preparing for airraces as they develop a plan involving pilot qualification,training and testing along with a layout for the course. The FAAinspects pilots' practice runs and brief pilots on the routemaneuvers and emergency procedures.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., issued a statement saying he was"deeply saddened" about the crash.
"My thoughts are with the families of those who have lost theirlives and with those who were wounded in this horrific tragedy,"he said. "I am so grateful to our first responders for their swiftaction and will continue to monitor this situation as itdevelops."