Air races honor heroes from deadly 2011 crash
STEAD – Standing at the very spot where a World War II fighter crashed a year ago, Julie Morgan and Bri Depaoli remembered how quiet it was when they ran from a first-aid tent to care for those wounded by the crash that left 11 dead and 70 seriously injured.
“It was eerily silent because everyone was in shock,” said Morgan, a nurse at Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Reno.
“It was organized chaos,” added Depaoli, a fellow nurse there.
The two were among medical personnel, law officers, firefighters and other emergency responders honored as heroes Thursday during a special tribute at the formal opening of the 49th annual Reno National Championship Air Races.
Thousands of spectators turned out for what air races President Mike Houghton described as a “somber memorial to those whose lives were lost in an unthinkable tragedy” and “a humble tribute to the compassion on display under challenging circumstances.”
Pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Fla., and 10 people on the ground were killed last Sept. 16 when his modified P-51 Mustang crashed in the box seats in front of the grandstand at Reno-Stead Airport. More than 70 were injured.
But Houghton said countless lives were saved that day by the brave first responders, including one crew that used a former Army Huey helicopter that was on display that day to ferry victims to a Reno hospital about 12 miles away.
Morgan and Depaoli were among four Saint Mary’s emergency room nurses praised for their actions at the crash site by Houghton and others, including Reno Mayor Bob Cashell and Sparks Mayor Geno Martini.
“It’s a flood of emotion,” Depaoli said after the ceremony. “I started crying here. I thought about the people who didn’t make it. It is very emotional.”
Dave Dean, the crew chief for the privately owned Huey, said Washoe County sheriff’s deputies told them they needed a helicopter fast. The owners immediately granted permission and the crew wheeled the 45-year-old, 6,500-pound helicopter onto the runway by hand.
Ray Murphy, the 70-year-old chief pilot who flew Hueys in Vietnam, said they took out the back seats to make room for two of the more seriously injured victims on stretchers and carried two more walking wounded.
Murphy said they had to ask for directions before they flew about 12 minutes before landing in a park across the street from Renown Regional Medical Center near downtown.
“We were all in shock,” he said Thursday. “I was only thinking about piloting, getting the helicopter to the hospital.”
“What woke me up afterward was when they cleaned up all the blood in the back area where the four patients were. That is when it sank it- the severity of it all,” he said.
All four patients survived.
“The old girl still has it and I was glad to be part of it,” Murphy said. “The Huey helicopter saved countless lives in Vietnam and we would like to think it saved lives last year, too.”
There was only one complaint about the medical care after the crash.
A tearful Cashell recounted a story of how a male patient at a Reno hospital told him that he was “really upset” about his treatment there.
“I asked him why and he said, ‘Because I had a rod (from the downed plane) go through my leg and the doctors threw it away.’ He wanted it as a trophy,” the mayor said.
Air races organizers plan to pay tribute to crash victims at a ceremony Sunday on the final day of competition. Among those expected to attend are families who lost loved ones and spectators who were critically injured.