RENO, Nev. -- 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 craned 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 nosedived into a section of white VIP box seats.
The plane, flown by a 74-year-old veteran racer and Hollywood stunt pilot, disintegrated into 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 a trim tab, which helps pilots keep control of aircraft.
Reno police also provided a GPS mapping system to help investigators re-create the crash scene.
"Pictures and video appear to show a piece of the plane was coming off," NTSB 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."
PILOT, EIGHT FANS DIE
The dead so far include the pilot and eight spectators. Officials said 54 people were transported to hospitals but more came in on their own. Eight remained in critical condition as of midday Saturday and nine were in serious condition.
Despite the numbers of dead and injured, witnesses and people familiar with the race say the toll could have been much higher had the plane gone down in the larger crowd area of the stands. The plane crashed in a section of box seats in front of the grandstand 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 disaster and had just seconds to respond.
A HORRIFIC SCENE
Witnesses described a horrible scene after the plane struck the crowd and sent 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 the living stumbled around bloodied and in shock.
"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 of tending the injured. Just that morning, the 25 emergency workers at the air show had done a drill for just such a large-scale emergency.