Witnesses describe carnage at Reno air race

A vintage World War II-era fighter plane plunged into the grandstands Friday during a popular annual air show, killing at least three people, injuring more than 50 spectators at the Reno Air Races in Stead, Nev., on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011. Nevada air race tragedy Video: Air race crash AP Photo/Cathleen Allison

When a vintage, World War II-era plane suddenly went into a nose-dive and crashed at an air race in Reno, Nevada Friday, killing three people and injuring dozens of spectators, it looked "Like a war zone," according to one man who was there.

"There were just a lot of people laying around and a lot of body parts, pieces of tissue laying around," Dr. Gerald Lent, a retired optometrist and Air Force veteran who goes to the air race every year, told "Early Show on Saturday Morning" co-anchor Russ Mitchell, "and many, many injured people. It looked like a war zone, and people had shrapnel and holes in their head and legs and side. There was just really a disaster. A lot of people were hurt by the flying debris, bolts, and parts of the airplane, and sheet metal was flying through the spectators' stand and through the VIP booths in the front, and it was just going in every direction at the speed of sound; metal was flying."

David Wilson, an aircraft engineer and pilot who traveled to Reno from Australia to attend the air race, was just 25 yards away from where the plane came down.

"I was just awestruck," he told Mitchell. "I didn't know what to think. I was just shocked. ... I had pieces (of the aircraft) falling at my feet, and I was just shocked."

Greg Erny attended the event with his daughter, who's in her twenties.

"We were sitting in the VIP area just west of the crash site," Erny told "Early Show on Saturday Morning" co-anchor Rebecca Jarvis, "and we happened to be sitting next to, by chance, family, I believe, and friends of the pilot, because we were following him around the course because of their enthusiasm as they watched him. And we saw him come around the pylon to the west, and his plane kind of did a flutter and, next thing you know, he was pulling up. (There was) disappointment (among his family and friends) from the pulling up ... because they were cheering a second ago. And, all of a sudden, he turned over and went vertical into the ground, and it went from moments of cheering to moments of disbelief and shock in a matter of seconds."

Erny says he's "still, I guess, in a bit of disbelief. It's something that you don't participate in. You do watch it on camera and on the news, as opposed to being an eyewitness. I think everybody was shocked. "Did we really just witness what we saw?"'

Lent says he spoke with one plane's crew members, who speculated 74-year-old veteran Hollywood stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward had suffered a heart stack or some other medical problem, such as passing out. But Lent said Leeward's crew told him they thought the crash was caused by mechanical failure.

Wilson, himself a pilot an aircraft engineer. says he doesn't think air races and shows are "becoming too unsafe. I think they are being done very well. It was just a very unfortunate accident here. I don't think it's an unsafe situation."

Erny says he "absolutely" would bring his daughter watch another air race. "You're hearing stories," he told Jarvis, "that it's been 40 years or thereabouts of the event going on and there's never been an incident with a fan of any type, although there has been tragedy with the pilots. I certainly hope it goes on. It's a wonderful event. It's a wonderful community and fraternity of people out here, that, if you've been around them, that I think will probably want the event to go on, as well."

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