Grief counselors on hand to help after Reno air race crash

RENO - Mixed in with the hot-dog stands, souvenir T-shirt tents, barbecue pits and model airplanes is a different kind of booth this year behind the grandstand at the 49th annual National Championship Air Races.

Race organizers have contracted with a private firm to provide two grief counselors to help spectators and participants alike deal with what is sure to be an emotional return for some after last year's deadly crash.

"We suspect everybody watching the air races will have a different emotional reaction," race spokesman Mike Draper said as planes roared overhead during Wednesday's qualifying heats. "If they struggle with their emotions, they'll have someone to talk to."

Roger Artie can relate. He saw Jimmy Leeward's P-51 crash nose-first into the box seats in front of the grandstand last Sept. 16, killing Leeward and 10 spectators and injuring more than 70.

"I was stunned when it happened," said Artie, a longtime air race volunteer and retired mental health technician from Reno.

"The plane crash was so close to me that I could have been killed if it wasn't so windy," he said.

Artie said he couldn't bring himself to return there for more than eight months after the crash and still hasn't visited the actual impact site on the tarmac, which has been paved over with asphalt. But he said he avoided the temptation to bottle up his emotions inside.

"It's really helped for me to talk about it. It is a catharsis," Artie said. "People have to be brought face-to-face with their emotions and process them."

Tim Maloney, another veteran air race volunteer and pastor of the Calvary Chapel in Petaluma, Calif., who has helped provide informal counseling to some fellow volunteers, agreed.

"It's the guys who stuffed their emotions and said, 'I'm OK,' those are the ones who will have problems," said Maloney, who praised the racing association for contracting with Empathia Inc., a workplace wellness firm with offices in Waukesha, Wis., and Westlake Village, Calif.

"You are not going to have a lot of people flock to the tent but those who do will really need the help," he said.

The tragedy has proved too traumatic for some to return.

Some of Leeward's family had considered coming, but his widow, Bette, decided she "emotionally wasn't up to it," said Mike Houghton, president of the Reno Air Racing Association.

Crowds will begin to grow today, when the mayors of Reno and Sparks will help lead a special opening ceremony and tribute to the emergency crews who initially responded to the tragic crash. Another special tribute planned Sunday will focus on the victims and families of victims.

Maloney said it could take just a "trigger event" for some to be overcome with emotion - a loud noise, another crash or a visit to the spot where the plane crashed.

A pilot escaped injury after making an emergency, rough landing with a landing gear problem on Tuesday. But the scene of fire trucks responding to the edge of the runway and the dust cloud sent into the sky when the plane spun off into the sagebrush probably shook some people up, he said.

Maloney emphasized a visit to the counseling booth won't necessarily come with any guarantees.

"One of the biggest questions we always get is 'Why did God allow this to happen?"' he said. "Unfortunately, there is no answer to that question. Accidents happen."


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