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Death Toll Rises to 11 in Crash at Reno Air Races
by Cristina Silva Associated Press
Sep 21, 2011 | 2088 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune/Dan McGee
As his crew watches, Jimmy Leeward fires up the motor in his unlimited air racer prior to rolling out for his qualifying run on Tuesday, Sept. 13.
Tribune/Dan McGee As his crew watches, Jimmy Leeward fires up the motor in his unlimited air racer prior to rolling out for his qualifying run on Tuesday, Sept. 13.

RENO (AP) — When 50-year-old Craig Salerno went missing after attending the Reno air races with friends, his wife didn’t need DNA testing to confirm her worst fears.

Her husband and the father of their two young children was sitting in the VIP section where a fighter plane landed in an explosive crash Friday afternoon. Salerno’s friend was taken to the hospital with critical injuries. There was no way Salerno had survived.

“The family knew,” said Tony Buzbee, a Salerno family spokesman.

“There is no delicate way to say this; the problem was there was no way to confirm he was dead other than DNA testing.”

Medical officials confirmed Salerno’s death to his wife Monday night, bringing the death toll in what has become the nation’s deadliest racing disaster up to 11.

A spokesman for the medical examiner’s office said officials have been trying to identify body parts since the Friday afternoon accident.

Also Tuesday, a Nevada man who took his 12-year-old to see racing pilots was identified as among the 11 people who died.

Virginia Craik told The Associated Press that her son, 45-year-old John Craik, of Gardnerville, died from injuries after a WWII-era fighter plane dived into a crowd of fans Friday during the nation’s premier aviation competition. Her grandson was with his dad when the plane crashed. Family members said the boy was not seriously injured and is back in school.

More than 70 people were treated for injuries, some of them life-threatening, in the unexplained crash that also took the life of 74-year-old stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward.

That dramatic injury toll was stoking fears across the nation, as relatives and friends flooded Reno officials with inquiries about the whereabouts of spectators. Emergency officials were trying to compile a list of missing people Tuesday.

“You’re responding to someone who was with a loved one at one moment and the loved one is not there the next moment,” said Kathy Jacobs, executive director of the Crisis Call Center in Reno. “They’re looking for answers, and the reality is we can’t answer their questions right away.”

Leeward’s Galloping Ghost Mustang fighter plane disintegrated into a cloud of dust and debris during Friday’s race.

The National Championship Air Races drew thousands of people to Reno every September to watch various military and civilian planes race. Local schools often held field trips there, and a local sports book took wagers on the outcomes.

During the races, planes flew wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet (15 meters) off the ground. The competitors follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft. Pilots reached speeds of up to 500 mph.

Leeward, was the 20th pilot to die at the races since it began 47 years ago, but Friday’s crash was the first where spectators were killed. Some of the injured described being coated in aviation fuel that burned.

Leeward and his team had modified the plane beyond recognition, taking a full 10 feet off the wingspan and cutting the ailerons — the back edges of the wings used to turn the aircraft — by roughly 28 inches.

Leeward was a veteran air racer from Ocala, Fla., who flew in Hollywood films. His father worked in aviation and taught him the trade. He was married with two adult sons. Leeward loved speeding, on the ground or in the air, and had recently taken up racing cars.

The others killed who have been identified were Sharon Stewart, 47, of Reno; Greg Morcom, 47, of Marysville, Wash.; George Hewitt, 60, and Wendy Hewitt, 57, both of Fort Mohave, Ariz.; Michael Wogan, 22, of Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Regina Bynum, 53, of San Angelo, Texas; and James McMichael, 47, of Graham, Wa.
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