RENO, Nev. -- The death toll rose to nine yesterday in an air race crash as investigators determined that several spectators were killed on impact after the 1940s-model plane appeared to lose a piece of its tail and slammed like a missile into a crowded tarmac.
Thousands arched 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 took an immediate nosedive into a section of VIP box seats.
The plane, flown by 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.
National Transportation Safety Board officials were on the scene yesterday 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 the aircraft.
"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."
Reno police provided investigators a GPS mapping system to help them recreate the crash scene.
The dead so far included 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 yesterday and nine were in serious condition.
Despite the large number of dead and injured, witnesses 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 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.
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.
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.
The crash marked the first time spectators had been killed since the races began 47 years ago in Reno.
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 50 feet off the ground at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph.
Another crash came at an air show Saturday in Martinsburg, W. Va. The World War II-era plane, a T-28, crashed and burst into flames, killing the pilot. No one else was injured, officials said.