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A P-51 Mustang airplane is shown right before crashing at the Reno Air show on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 in Reno Nevada. A World War II-era fighter plane flown by a veteran Hollywood stunt pilot plunged Friday into the edge of the grandstands during a popular air race, killing three people, injuring more than 50 spectators and creating a horrific scene strewn with smoking debris. (AP Photo/Ward Howes) - AP

A matter of life or death

One moment, Mike Quilty considered himself lucky to be alive.

The next, he started thinking about dozens of people showered with debris Friday from a retooled P-51 Mustang that slammed into the Reno Air Race crowd below the grandstands where he sat.

The Central Point resident wasn't sure whether the best move was to exit the area or stay and help after veteran movie stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Fla., nosedived his World War II-vintage fighter Galloping Ghost next to the VIP grandstands.

Emergency responders and military members on hand for the race quickly descended on the scene, but the casualties were overwhelming. The PA announcer, located just a few feet from impact, instructed spectators to remain in their places, allowing emergency crews quicker access to the injured.

Quilty and those around him were sprayed with aviation fuel and an 18-inch piece of aluminum landed three or four feet away. Pieces of the victims, he said, were not far away.

"The natural reaction is to go help other people, in something like that," he said. "But you don't want to be stupid when you're covered with aviation fuel."

Quilty made his way to an airman and told him he had been a paramedic in the military and was a retired lawman.

"If they needed help, I was offering," he said. "If I was in the way, I was gone. He asked me to stay and help with some of the debris."

A minute or two later, the airman returned and told Quilty there weren't enough medics on scene and his help was needed. For the next hour, Quilty assisted a dozen or more people without life-threatening injuries, placing them on backboards, applying bandages and filling out triage tags.

The impact not only scattered twisted metal and glass debris through the spectators, but also sprayed atomized flight fuel on the crowd. For between 30 and 60 seconds, Quilty considered what a spark could do.

"When fuel vaporizes, that's when it's most likely to catch fire and explode," he said. "We were blessed there wasn't a fire. It was like a water balloon shot by a BB, if there was a spark, it would have been much worse. There was a decent wind blowing from our backs across the airfield, but the fuel was dispersed and the firefighters in their silver suits never sprayed anything down."

Air racers carry only about 20 minutes of fuel, to reduce weight, and three of the race's six laps were complete when Leeward lost control of his plane, apparently after a trim tab came off the left elevator, though investigators are still trying to determine what caused the crash.

Quilty knew the plane was in trouble when the nose pitched up after the No. 9 pylon.

"Altitude is safety when you're flying," he said. "The aircraft rolled right and was inverted — upside down — as it headed across the grandstand," Quilty said. "Everyone figured it would turn right-side-up behind us and then turn around. Then it snapped down and headed straight toward us. All you could see was the line of the wings and canopy. There was nowhere to run and everyone with me swears they were seeing their last second on Earth."

He figures the pilot did as much as he could to avoid more carnage.

"Within one second of impact, it rolled partially to the left so that it landed 20 to 30 feet in front of the box seats," Quilty said. "I believe he tried to aim from us. If that hadn't have happened, the injuries would have been 100-fold when you are talking about several thousand people in the grandstands."

As of Sunday, 10 people had died from the crash and about 70 injuries had been reported, with about half serious or critical, including amputations, head injuries and chemical burns.

Quilty said he has been involved in mass casualty operations before, the result of dozens of cars piling up because of fog and smoke blinding drivers in the Sacramento area.

"But this was the first time I've been through something where I was potentially one of the victims instead of the responders," Quilty said, giving kudos to the fire, police and ambulance personnel from Reno and Washoe County.

"You could see how distraught everyone was," he said. "They had a triage area laid out in minutes and in 62 minutes they had 58 ambulances loaded and 70 people were treated at the hospital."

Quilty has attended nearly every one of the National Championship Air Races races since the early 1970s. The event turned into an annual family reunion, with friends and family occupying the same seven or eight reserved seats each September. The nature of flying machines roaring over a nine-mile stretch, pushing to speeds of 400 mph or more, is dangerous. Reno has seen its share of planes go down and 20 pilots die since the event began in 1964.

"But those accidents never involved anyone on the ground," he said. "I worry more about lightning strikes than aircraft coming into the stands at Reno."

Reno is the among the last of air races. Quilty used to go to races near Lincoln, Calif., and in the past they have been held in Phoenix, Ariz., and the Mojave Desert.

"They are not the kind of event you can hold at most local airports," he said. "You need a lot of land to provide space in case something goes wrong with the aircraft at 400 to 500 mph."

Danger is an accepted part of motorsports for both participants and fans.

"The danger is usually to the participant, not the spectator," he said. "But everyone realizes in high-speed motorsports — auto, boat, motorcycle or air racing — you have an element of risk because you are taking machinery and you are stressing it. That's how we improve our machinery and why automobiles have been racing for 100 years and companies like Ford sponsors cars in NASCAR."

Risk is relevant, as well, he said, noting if the race continues he will be there next year.

"People were killed eating at an IHOP two weeks ago in the same area and nobody thinks eating pancakes should be dangerous," he said. "We have to remember more people died going to school and work on Friday than in Reno in a tragic, tragic accident."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email business@mailtribune.com.

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