By MARTIN GRIFFITH and KEN RITTER Associated Press
September 20, 2011
Sharon Stewart needed money to visit her four sons in California so she took a minimum-wage job picking up trash at the National Championship Air Races in Reno. She was almost done with her 11-hour shift when a WWII-era fighter plane veered off course and crashed into the VIP seating section.
Her friend found her dead body on the tarmac moments later, covered by a sheet of tarp.
Stewart was among 10 people killed after The Galloping Ghost Mustang fighter plane disintegrated into a cloud of dust and debris during Friday’s race. The 74-year-old stunt pilot also died in the nation’s deadliest air racing disaster.
Among the victims were a wheelchair-bound businessman who loved to travel, a former airline pilot who owned a vintage airplane and a construction worker attending his first race. Most of the victims were there for leisure, but Stewart, 47, died while trying to make a few extra bucks.
“She was so happy she was going to make some extra money, we were going to pay the rent and save some money to go see the kids,” said Jose Cacheux-Ojeda, 59, the father of her children and her longtime boyfriend.
At least three of the victims have not been identified and more than 70 people were treated for injuries, some of them life threatening. The dramatic injury toll was stroking fears across the nation, as relatives and friends flooded Reno officials with inquiries about the whereabouts of spectators.
“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.”
Cherie Elvin, the matriarch of a Kansas family, is among those missing. Her husband, Chuck Elvin, their two sons, Bill and Brian Elvin, and Brian Elvin’s wife, Linda, were all taken to a Reno hospital with serious injuries Friday. Each had lost some part of a leg, according to a website used by the family.
Gary Umscheid, whose daughter, Rachel, is married to Bill Elvin, described Cherie and Chuck Elvin as “very typical Midwestern folks who love family.”
“The family has a distinct love of aviation,” he said.
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.
The pilot, James 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.
Dan Martin, of San Jose, Calif., flew with Leeward on the set of the “The Tuskegee Airmen” in the early 1990s. Martin competed in one of the Reno competition’s slower races last week, and was watching at the time of the crash.
“He could fly just about anything, and he always took a very professional approach to everything he did in aviation,” Martin said.
Among the others killed were 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.
Friends and family members who survived the crash grappled with the unexpected deaths.
Dave Haskin, 50, was working with Stewart cleaning trash at the race grounds when he saw the plane explode.
“There were arms and legs and this guy whose torso got cut in half,” Haskin said.
Morcom was visiting the air races for the first time with his father and brother, who had attended many times. He was killed instantly when he was struck by multiple pieces of debris, said his older brother, Ron Morcum.
“Everyone in our section got hit except for me,” Ron Morcum said, adding his wife and father were released after treatment for minor injuries the night of the crash.
Greg Morcom never married or had children. He worked for a private fish hatchery for 10 years, then switched to construction. He lived with his elderly parents and took care of them.
“It was fate as far as where the pieces ended up dispersing when the aircraft crashed,” Ron Morcum said. “Mostly it’s just chance. I happened to duck down, and a lot of pieces went over the top of us. It looks like standing up you were more in harm’s way. I happened to be in the correct place and Greg wasn’t.”
Bynum’s husband, Jerry Bynum, said the couple were enjoying the race from box seats with five friends when the plane crashed about 300 feet away. She was struck in the face and arm by the debris. Everyone else in their group was untouched.
“It’s God’s will and we don’t know why it happens,” her husband, a pilot, said during a telephone interview.
Regina Bynum was a branch office assistant for an investment company. She had three children from a previous marriage and four grandchildren. She raised goats and Yorkshire terriers on the family’s ranch.
Her mother-in-law, Jo Bynum, said she regarded Regina Bynum as her own daughter.
“It (her death) just doesn’t seem true, it’s such a shock,” said Jo Bynum.
The Hewitts attended the show with a Washington-based group of vintage airplane owners. George Hewitt flew as a pilot with Air Canada for more than 40 years. The Seattle Times reported that Hewitt owned a small post-World War II plane originally built by the same company that made the model Leeward crashed in Reno.
Wogan was sitting in an area for wheelchairs with his father when the plane hit the ground. He, like two of his brothers, was diagnosed at an early age with muscular dystrophy and was wheelchair-bound his entire life. He had no way of protecting himself from the flying debris.
“He was about moving past that (disability) and always driven toward independence,” said his brother, James Wogan, in a statement.
Michael Wogan studied finance, graduated with honors in May from Arizona State University and didn’t consider himself disabled, said Cindy Simonsen, a family friend who sat with Wogan on the board of a nonprofit organization that helps low-income families. He ran his own business and was gearing up to start a new one, she said.
Wogan’s mother had turned to her faith, Simonsen said.
“Her comment was that, `Michael is running around now on legs never before used,'” Simonsen recalled.
Associated Press writers Michelle Rindels and Cristina Silva in Las Vegas, Scott Sonner in Reno and Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
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