Frisco business owners witness ‘horrifying’ Reno plane crash
summit daily news
Ron Lewark, of Frisco, was at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nev., with his two sons on Friday – an event he has attended almost without fail for nearly 40 years – when the unthinkable happened.
A World War II-era fighter plane, competing in one of the final races of the day, came hurtling into the grandstands and exploded on impact, killing at least nine people and sending deadly shards of metal in all directions, injuring dozens of others.
“It was just a horrifying accident,” said Lewark, whose son screamed at him to get on the ground as scraps of metal and debris were sent flying all around them. “There was no fire … there was a big concussion and at that point stuff started flying toward us. “
The plane, named “Galloping Ghost,” was piloted by Jimmy Leeward, 74, a veteran Hollywood stunt pilot. He was competing in a gold race, which pits the fastest planes against each other. It was lap three or four of six when something went wrong.
“(It was) just coming around a pile-on where they make a turn on the straightaway,” Lewark recalls. “All of a sudden he pulled up sharply and went straight up in the air over the top of the grandstand past the box seats where we sat. The airplane flopped over a couple of times, tumbled I would say, and came straight down at probably 300 miles per hour.”
The whole thing took no more than a few seconds, Lewark said. In the stands, the crowd watched in horror, unable to know where the plane would hit and without any time to move to safety.
“I knew some of the guys in the grandstand,” Lewark said. “They looked up and thought, ‘Oh, no, this is it.'” You knew from the moment it got up above the big grandstand and made a couple of tumbles … and then dove straight down. I don’t think any of those people, I don’t think anybody even had a chance to try and run.”
Lewark and his family escaped injury, but a member of their group, Paul Rossman of Denver, was hit in the head and a woman nearby was nearly killed.
In the stands, it was “utter chaos,” Lewark said. Women were crying, injured people were bleeding and medics swarmed the scene trying to save lives.
The pilot, Leeward, and at least eight people in the crowd were killed.
Fifty-six people were taken to the hospital with injuries and more were transported by private vehicle, Stephanie Kruse, spokeswoman for the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority told The Associated Press. At least 28 people were in critical or serious condition.
The cause of the accident is under investigation, but an official with the event told The Associated Press the crash might have been caused by a medical problem. On the ground, the rumors were flying.
“Word is, (the pilot) had called in a mayday,” Lewark said. “And there are rumors circulating around that part of the tail might have come off. That’s speculation right now, but we have heard that he did call mayday. ”
Since Lewark began attending the air show in 1974 he has only missed the event twice.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “You can’t imagine that that could happen.”
Lewark moved to Summit County in 1971 and opened the Shell gas station in Frisco the same year. He is now retired and his sons, Jeff and Larry, run the Shell. The family will stay in Reno until Sunday as planned to recover, though the rest of the air show has been cancelled.
The Associated Press contributed to the reporting of this story.
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