Nevada air race crash victims mourned in Reno

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 25, 2011 11:33 PM
Nevada air race crash victims mourned in Reno

By Stephen Ward

RENO, Nev (Reuters) - Hundreds of mourners filled an outdoor arboretum at sunset on Sunday for a candlelight memorial tribute to 11 people killed in the crash of a vintage World War Two plane at a Nevada air show over a week ago.

Reno Mayor Bob Cashell presided over the somber, 40-minute service, held on a grassy hill of Idlewild Park near downtown, about 20 miles from the site of the September 16 tragedy, following a symbolic planting of an oak tree in memory of the victims.

"Thank you all for joining us as this community begins its healing process," Cashell told the gathering.

Taking the podium for his own remarks, Governor Brian Sandoval said, "We come together as the Nevada family to grieve our loss."

He was followed by three clergy members who recited brief prayers.

A city spokeswoman, Barbara Dicianno, put the number of attendees at about 500.

The mourners, each given small white candles as they entered the park, huddled on the hill, most of them standing, to form a circle around the speakers and a string quartet that played bits of soft music.

A lone singer performed the national anthem a cappella around the start of the event.

The service climaxed at sunset as a guitarist accompanied another vocalist in a rendition of "Amazing Grace" while the mourners all silently lit their candles, which flickered in a gentle breeze that rustled the surrounding trees.

Displayed beside the podium was a framed artist's rendering of the single-engine plane that crashed, a modified P-51 Mustang, depicted flying through a cloud-blotched sky, with the words, "In memory of Jimmy Leeward" -- in tribute to the pilot who died.

Investigators are still trying to determine what caused Leeward, 74, to lose control of the aircraft while competing at the 48th Annual National Air Championship Races.

The plane plowed into a box-seating area in front of the grandstand, leaving a 3-foot-deep crater in the tarmac. Besides Leeward, 10 people on the ground were killed, and another 66 seriously injured.

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Leeward, a Florida-based real estate developer well-known in air racing circles, had flown as a stunt pilot in movies.

Federal safety regulators have said they are examining evidence that a piece of the aircraft broke loose shortly before the plane plunged to the ground. A photograph snapped seconds before the crash appears to show a plane component falling off.

The accident took place a day before another vintage plane crashed in a fireball during an aerobatic demonstration at a West Virginia air show, killing the pilot.

The two incidents have raised new questions about the safety of such events.

A total of 30 people have been killed in the Reno Air Races since they began in 1964, though city officials say this year marked the first spectator deaths.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton)