Nevada Air Race Crash Death Toll Rises

Investigators examine whether the pilot was unconscious before crash.

September 19, 2011, 3:22 AM

Sept. 19, 2011— -- A 10th person has died from injuries sustained when a stunt plane crashed at the Reno Air Race.

A hospital spokeswoman told the Associated Press that a male patient had died overnight at Saint Mary's Regional Medical Center. At least 70 people were injured in the crash on Friday.

News of the death came as investigators turned their attention to pilot Jimmy Leeward, who may have been unconscious when his World War II-era P-51 Mustang smashed into a crowd of spectators, killing him and nine others.

Leeward was traveling at 500 miles per hour when he crashed, killing fans seated in the VIP seats on the tarmac. Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Fla., was a veteran stuntman.

Witnesses said that as the P-51 Mustang Galloping Ghost rounded the final clubhouse turn, something dropped off the tail of the plane, and that that may have been what caused the problem.

In one of the final photos taken before the crash, half of a sliver piece of metal -- crucial for the aircraft to maintain balance -- appeared to be missing. Investigators said that they recovered a damaged "elevator trim tab" among the debris.

In a video posted on YouTube in June, Leeward described how he had modified the old propeller plane to make it fly as fast as a jet.

"We've cut 10 feet off the wings, five off each side. … The systems aren't proven yet. We think they're going to be OK," Leeward said in the video.

Leeward's age and medical history may also prove relevant to their investigation, according to National Transportation Board officials, while ABC News consultant and former pilot Steve Ganyard said he worried that Leeward was not conscious during the crash.

"There is no pilot's head in that cockpit. It tells me that he was likely unconscious, slumped over the controls," Ganyard said.

National Transportation Safety Board officials said that the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority is resuming operations at the airport where Friday's crash occurred, and that on-scene public affairs officials would be returning to Washington.

Officials said that the airplane had a recording system, and a box containing memory cards was found at the scene of the crash. Investigators said they'd analyzed the cards to see if there was any footage that could explain what happened. One NTSB member, Mark Rosekind, said that investigators recovered a "tremendous amount of material" at the scene.

NTSB investigators said the plane was outfitted with a forward-facing camera, which they were also able to recover, along with the memory cards. They say it had a rudimentary data system and that these discoveries together may provide their best answers yet as to what happened in those final moments before the crash.

Investigators say the plane was equipped with a basic flight data system, which was recording real-time velocity, altitude, and engine performance information.

"These could be critical to perform analysis that would allow us to examine certain structural or medical issues based," Rosekind said.

Investigators said that they'll be looking not just at the plane and the pilot, but also the regulations for these air races to determine what, if any, changes might make them safer.

Survivors Speak of Crash

Injuries sustained by victims of the catastrophic accident include major head wounds, facial trauma and limb injuries, including amputations.

Noah Joraanstad, one of the 69 people treated at hospitals, said he was sure he was about to die as the plane plummeted to the ground.

"I think I was very, very fortunate. I thank God for it, the shrapnel that hit me, hit me right in the right spot where it just missed all my important organs and arteries and my spine," he said.

Art O'Connor, another spectator, was hit in the back with a hunk of metal as he ducked for cover. He said that he took the piece home as a grim souvenir from the tragic accident.

"I figured, wow, that hit me, it's mine. But I don't know if that was right or not," he said, saying he'd be happy to provide it to the investigators if they believe it will help them.

The Washoe County Medical Examiner's Office has completed scientific identification and notification to family members on five of the nine victims from Friday's accident. They are George Hewitt, 60; Regina Bynum, 53; Sharon Stewart, 47; James Leeward, 74.