'I can't stop thinking about it. I keep seeing it'

A Gold Hill couple who watched The Galloping Ghost slam into a crowded Tarmac about 200 feet from their box seats in Reno say although the Friday crash was "numbing" and "horrific," they hope air shows don't get canceled.

"I saw it nose up and thought it was a 'Mayday' (where the plane departs from the race by flying upward), but then I said, 'oh no' and we ran," said Deb Richardson. "It came so fast and furious, then we saw it crash."

Richardson's husband, Butch Merusi, retired from an Air Force career, said The Galloping Ghost and other planes in the Unlimited class were in the first of several qualifying races and were traveling at top speed, at least 400 mph.

"There was no warning whatsoever," Merusi said. "It pitched up and over. The engine was not running as it came down and there was no fire. It was horrific. I never want to see anything like that again."

The couple attends the Reno race every summer and, three years ago, saw another fatal crash, he said.

"I was in the Air Force 23 years, including Vietnam, and also on the Mount Ashland Ski Patrol, so I've dealt with a lot of carnage and I can deal with it," said Merusi. "I didn't go there to see anyone die, but it's kind of a slap in the face. I can't stop thinking about it. I keep seeing it."

Richardson agreed with many witnesses who saw pilot Jimmy Leeward bank to the left to avoid going into the grandstands, crashing instead to the left of the box seats, a less populated area.

Merusi, who followed the "Galloping Ghost" all year and was rooting for the plane, got hit by a piece of debris but was unhurt, he said.

The couple acknowledged it's risky to be a spectator at air shows and drag races — they volunteer at Champion Raceway in Medford — but that's part of the experience.

"Yes, it's dangerous," says Merusi, "but I'd hate to see it end. No one makes me go there. You have to assume there's that possibility, just like when you get in your car and go out on the road."

Once the debris settled, Richardson said they checked to see that everyone in the box seats (in front of the grandstands) was OK, then "I cradled my husband in my arms. He was sad because of what happened to the Galloping Ghost. He was so excited about seeing it fly."

Choking back tears, Richardson said, "There's a numbness involved here. It takes a while for everything to settle in. It's still coming. But we'll go again to the races, absolutely. It's dangerous but everything is dangerous.

"My heartfelt goes out to the people who died and to their families. I don't know if they even saw it coming. There was no time to do anything but go oh-oh and run."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Share This Story