Memory cards in a video camera aboard a post-Second Word War military aircraft may hold a clue as to why the plane crashed on Saturday at a Reno, Nevada air show killing nine people, including the pilot.
National Transportation Safety Board officials are investigating the memory cards as well as trying to figure out if a small piece of the aircraft fell to the ground before the crash.
"Pictures and video appear to show a piece of the plane was coming off," board 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."
So far, it isn’t clear what caused veteran pilot Jimmy Leeward to lose control of his plane during an air race Friday night.
The death toll rose to nine Saturday as investigators determined that several onlookers were killed on impact as the plane appeared to lose a piece of its tail before slamming like a missile into the crowded tarmac.
The scene of the crash reveals the violence of the plane's impact — a crater in the tarmac roughly a metre deep and more than two metres across with debris spread out over about half a hectare.
Within 20 metres of grandstand
From a tour of the site Saturday evening, it appeared that the 1940s-model plane went straight down in the first few rows of VIP box seats, based on the crater's location.
The plane hit almost 20 metres in front of the leading edge of the grandstand, where thousands were watching planes race.
Some members of the crowd have reported noticing a strange gurgling engine noise from above before the P-51 Mustang, dubbed The Galloping Ghost, pitched violently upward, twirled and took an immediate nosedive into the crowd.
The plane, flown by Leeward, 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.
The crash killed Leeward and eight spectators. So far, two have been identified. Michael Wogan, 22, of Scottsdale, Ariz., had muscular dystrophy and was in a wheelchair the VIP section when the plane crashed, the family said Saturday.
The Washoe County, Nev., medical examiner identified the other victim as Greg Morcom of Washington state, a first-time spectator at the show, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
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.
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.
"I've seen more patients, but never this many patients with this number of severe injuries," added Dr. Michael Morkin, chief of Renown's emergency department, who trained at Cook County General Hospital In Chicago.
"It was traumatic," he said.
Injuries included major head wounds, facial trauma and limb injuries, including amputations, said Dr. Myron Gomes, chief trauma surgeon at Renown Regional Medical Center.
Witnesseses 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."
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.
One of the things investigators said they'll be looking at is the health of Leeward, who friends say was in excellent health.
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.
"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.
First spectator deaths
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 15 metres off the ground at speeds sometimes surpassing 800 km/h. 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, W. Va., when a T-28 built in the 1950s crashed and burst into flames. The pilot was killed.