Reno, Nevada (CNN) — A pilot lost control of his vintage plane during an air race over the skies of Reno, plummeting toward thousands of spectators before narrowly missing a grandstand and slamming into box seats.
At least two people died and 54 people were transported from the scene with injuries, officials said shortly after the crash Friday at the National Championship Air Races and Air Show.
But the death toll could rise, and there could be “mass casualties,” officials said.
The pilot, identified as Jimmy Leeward, a real estate developer from Ocala, Florida, was likely killed in the crash, the show said in a statement.
He was flying a P-51 Mustang. The event has been canceled, and a memorial service will be held for the pilot Saturday afternoon, the show said.
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.
“I don’t mean this as a disrespect to others injured, but that pilot is a hero. He saved a lot of lives today. It could have been much worse.”
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.”
A Reno hospital said Friday night on its website that it had received a “total of 25 patients” after the plane crashed. It said two people, one male and one female, had died.
It was not immediately clear whether that figure included the pilot.
The patients included 12 people in critical condition, meaning their vital signs are “not within normal limits,” and 11 in fair condition, exhibiting stable vital signs, according to an update on the Renown Regional Medical Center website.
Four patients are in fair condition, the hospital said.
St. Mary’s Hospital in Reno said it had accepted 25 patients Friday evening from the accident. A spokeswoman for the hospital did not release the conditions of the patients.
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.
Fred Scholz, a witness, said he saw the plane seemingly “coming straight down.”
“I thought he was coming right on top of us,” he said, noting that the aircraft hit about 100 feet from him.
“Luckily there was no fire, which surprised me,” said Scholz, 59, from Truckee, California, who says he goes to air races ever year. “It just happened so quickly.”
Another witness, Greg Mills, added that 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.
“We got showered by little stuff,” said Mills, who works at the Pacific Aviation Museum based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, describing a chaotic scene afterward. “Everybody was running.”
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.
The aircraft was about a lap into the race when the pilot sent out a “Mayday signal” and pulled “out of the lap” before crashing into a box seat area that is in front of a grandstand about 15 miles north of Reno, Draper said.
“It was clear that (the plane) was pulling up and was in distress,” he said.
He added that authorities do not know why the aircraft went down.
Besides the Federal Aviation Administration personnel already there to assist the National Transportation Safety Board in the investigation, the show’s spokesman said that National Guard members — who were on-site practicing before the incident — are helping emergency personnel to clear the area.
“There are people still being escorted out of that area with various injuries,” Draper said.
Reno Mayor Bob Cashell told CNN that “700 or 800 emergency personnel showed up in a matter of minutes.”
“You couldn’t believe how fast they came,” said Cashell, adding that residents and some troops on site also helped with the injured. “Just watching these people and the way they responded, and it’s been magnificent.”
Local fire officials are reporting multiple fatalities and critical injuries, according to Ian Gregor, a spokesman with the FAA.
He said the aircraft did not catch fire, but there was a wide debris field following the crash.
Gary Arthur, another witness to the accident, said the plane wavered a few times, suggesting the pilot had tried to get control before going down.
“Just the sound of the impact was unbelievable,” he said. “Almost can’t believe you saw what actually happened.”
In 2007, a mid-air collision during the annual National Championship Air Races in Reno claimed the life of one of the two pilots involved. The collision was the latest in a string of accidents that plagued the races that week, killing three pilots.
CNN’s Mike Ahlers, Kelly Marshall Smoot, Greg Morrison and Nick Valencia contributed to this report.
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