- Associated Press - Saturday, September 17, 2011

RENO, Nev. (AP) — The death toll in the terrifying crash of a World War II-era plane during a Reno air race has risen to at least nine people, including the pilot and eight spectators, authorities said Saturday.

The deaths include seven who were killed on the tarmac and two others who died at hospitals, Reno Deputy Police Chief Dave Evans said.

The new death toll was announced at a briefing with local and federal investigators a day after the Friday afternoon crash. Authorities previously said that three people had perished in the crash.

Investigators said they were examining the site, gathering information about the crash at the edge of a grandstand area Friday. Authorities were encouraged by the large number of photos and videos available to them.

Federal investigators were looking into what caused the 74-year-old pilot to lose control of his plane during the race.

A P-51 Mustang airplane crashes into the edge of the grandstands at the Reno Air show on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011, in Reno, Nev. The World War II-era fighter plane flown by a veteran Hollywood stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward plunged Friday into the edge of the grandstands during the popular air race creating a horrific scene strewn with smoking debris. (AP Photo/Ward Howes)
A P-51 Mustang airplane crashes into the edge of the grandstands at ... more >

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Terry Williams told The Associated Press Saturday that a team has arrived from Washington to join regional officials. He said it’s too early to say what caused the crash, though event organizers suggested a mechanical problem.

As thousands watched in horror, the P-51 Mustang suddenly pitched upward, rolled and nose-dived toward the crowded grandstand. It then slammed into the tarmac and blew to pieces in front the pilot’s family and a tight-knit group of friends who attend the annual event.

It appears that other than the pilot, the injuries and deaths were caused by flying parts of the disintegrating plane — not a direct hit.

“It came down directly at us. As I looked down, I saw the spinner, the wings, the canopy just coming right at us. It hit directly in front of us, probably 50 to 75 feet,” Ryan Harris, of Round Mountain, Nev., told the AP.

“The next thing I saw was a wall of debris going up in the air. That’s what I got splashed with. In the wall of debris noticed there were pieces of flesh.”

Bloodied bodies spread across the area as people tended to the victims and ambulances rushed to the scene. Video and photos of the crash were captured by several people in the stands, and the horrific images of the wreckage were transmitted around the world within minutes.

John Townes, a Reno pilot, said the plane didn’t sound right.

“It wasn’t quite vertical. It was at a very slight angle and because of that I think it probably saved a lot of people,” he said.

“Normally when you see an air crash, you see recognizable wreckage. There was nothing, just little bits of metal.”

Prior to Friday, 19 people had been killed at the National Championship Air Races since their start 1964, organizers said, at least two in P-51s. In 1999, a Mustang disintegrated during a race, scattering debris and damaging a house. In 1994, one of the planes crashed next to a runway after engine failure sprayed the windshield with oil.

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