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Crash victim says Reno air race should go on

Published September 21, 2011 2:58 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Dave Desmon felt the racing fighter plane swoosh past him and slam into his group of friends, killing a husband and wife, cracking open a friend's skull and breaking his girlfriend's leg.

But Desmon, a longtime pilot and Boeing engineer, said the carnage he witnessed standing near the finish line at the annual National Championship Air Races in Reno Friday did not turn him off from his favorite event.

"I will get my ticket and I will be standing in that same spot next year," Desmon said.

The crash was the nation's deadliest air racing disaster, with 11 confirmed dead and 14 others still being treated at Reno hospitals late Tuesday. In all, more than 70 people were admitted for injuries after the exploding plane sprayed shrapnel into the crowd of spectators, cutting limbs and other body parts.

Among the dead were Desmon's friends, George Hewitt, 60, and Wendy Hewitt, 56, of Fort Mohave, Ariz.

Desmon, 51, said he was standing with the Hewitts at the front of the grandstands when pilot James Leeward suddenly veered off course as he took second place and entered the third lap of the race. A mere three second later, the plane was on the ground in pieces and the Hewitts were nowhere to be seen, Desmon said.

"The plane pretty much landed right on them," said Desmon, who estimates he was standing just three feet away from the couple at the time.

Desmon joined the wailing crowd of survivors who combed through the wreckage, searching for maimed friends and relatives or body parts. One friend had an open skull and a missing arm. Desmon assumed the man was dead and turned to search for survivors. A nurse who was with them ripped a piece of curtain from the spectator stand and used it to patch the wounded man up.

Desmon sustained minor injuries that could leave lasting scars.

"I basically look like I took a shotgun full of rock salt," he said.

His wounded friend remains in intensive care and can't afford a medical airlift home, Desmon's girlfriend is still having trouble walking on her injured leg and the Hewitt's four adult children had begun planning a memorial service. Still, Desmon said, they all agreed the races should continue.

"This was a wonderful event and we would really hate to see something happen to this event as a result of their tragic deaths," he said. "The family is 100 percent for the races carrying on."

A spokesman for the medical examiner's office said investigators have been trying to identify body parts since the gruesome accident. The names of all the known fatal victims had been confirmed by police or family by late Tuesday.

Among the newly-identified victims named Tuesday were a Kanas woman previously reported missing, a father who took his 12-year-old son to see the racing pilots, a man who loved airplanes and a volunteer firefighter.

Relatives of the Kansas woman, 71-year-old Cheryl Elvin of Lenexa, had said she was likely dead because the relatives who attended the show with her were all taken to area hospitals for critical leg injuries.

John Craik, 45, of Gardnerville, Nev., died after taking his son to watch the race. Virginia Craik told The Associated Press that her grandson was not seriously injured and is back in school.

"It's been tough," she said.

James McMichael, 47, of Graham, Wash., was at the show because he "loved planes," his mother, Darlene McMichael, said. "That's why most people go to those things."

She said her son was survived by his wife and an extensive extended family.

"Our family has a great faith," she said. "And we feel like things happen for a reason. It doesn't make it easier."

Craig Salerno, 50, was a dispatcher for Continental Airlines and a lieutenant for a volunteer fire department. Salerno was also an amateur pilot who volunteered with the annual Wings Over Houston Airshow, where he served as a liaison between the main act and the show.

"He was just one of those kind of people that many people know," said Tony Buzbee, a Houston lawyer serving as a spokesman for the Friendswood, Texas family. "He made the community work."

Salerno was given his VIP ticket by a friend, Buzbee said. He was survived by his wife and two young children.

The others killed who had previously been identified were Sharon Stewart, 47, of Reno; Greg Morcom, 47, of Stanwood, Wash.; Michael Wogan, 22, of Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Regina Bynum, 53, of San Angelo, Texas.

Leeward was a veteran air racer from Ocala, Fla., who flew in Hollywood films. He loved speeding, on the ground or in the air, and had recently taken up racing cars.

During the annual Reno competition, planes flew wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet from the ground. Pilots reached speeds of up to 500 mph.

George Hewitt, a recently retired pilot, "just couldn't shut up about how excited he was about coming to the races and having these great seats on the start and finish line," Desmon said. "The first couple of laps of that race were a heck of race."

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Cristina Silva can be reached at http://twitter.com/cristymsilva.