Wash. state casualty toll grows in Reno air crash

Wash. state casualty toll grows in Reno air crash
RENO, Nev. - Three people with Washington state connections were among the nine people killed Friday when a plane crashed at the Reno air race, and at least two others from the Puget Sound area were injured, officials and family members say.

The rising casualty toll comes as investigators revealed that the doomed World War II-era plane had a video camera facing outward, and memory cards were found at the scene of its crash near a grandstand in Reno. That raises the possibility of video of the crash.

The three victims killed from Washington state are Greg Morcom, 47, of Marysville, and a former Bellingham pilot, George Hewitt and his wife, Wendy.

Morcom's death was reported by KOMO News and the Hewitts' deaths were first reported by the Seattle Times.

Greg Morcom "was killed instantly," said Greg's brother, Ron Morcom Jr. "There was no suffering."

Morcom was at the air show with four other family members when the 1940s-model plane appeared to lose a piece of its tail before slamming like a missile into the crowded tarmac. Sixty-nine others were injured in the crash.

Ron Morcom Jr. owns Regal Air at Paine Field in Everett, and said he has been going to the air races in Reno with his father, Ron Sr., for more than 20 years. He said this was his youngest brother Greg's first trip to the event.

Ron Morcom Sr. was taken to a Reno hospital and later released. A family friend said that Greg Morcom lived with his parents, and worked in construction.

The deaths of former Bellingham couple George and Wendy Hewitt were confirmed by his brother, Wayne. He told the Seattle Times on Sunday that George Hewitt was 60 and Wendy Hewitt was 57. The couple had recently moved from Bellingham to Arizona.

The couple were spectators in a box for the Cascade Warbirds, a Washington state-based group of vintage warplane owners and their supporters. The Hewitts had four children, all grown and living in British Columbia.

In addition, at least two people from Pierce County were injured in the devastating crash.

Dan Merritt, a pilot from Graham, told KOMO News he sustained a broken leg. A man who was directly behind him in the crowd was killed, he says.

Larry Cruz, who also is from Graham, was right next to Merritt during the crash. Cruz suffered serious injuries and was undergoing surgery on Sunday.

Moments before the crash, thousands had arched their necks skyward and watched the planes speed by just a few hundred feet off the ground before some noticed a strange gurgling engine noise from above. Seconds later, the P-51 Mustang dubbed the Galloping Ghost pitched oddly upward, twirled and took an immediate nosedive into a section of white VIP box seats.

The plane, flown by a 74-year-old veteran racer and Hollywood stunt pilot, disintegrated in a ball of dust, debris and bodies as screams of "Oh my God!" spread through the crowd.

National Transportation Safety Board officials were on the scene Saturday to determine what caused Jimmy Leeward to lose control of the plane, and they were looking at amateur video clips that appeared to show a small piece of the aircraft falling to the ground before the crash. Witnesses who looked at photos of the part said it appeared to be a "trim tab," which helps pilots keep control of the aircraft.

Reno police also provided a GPS mapping system to help investigators recreate the crash scene.

"Pictures and video appear to show a piece of the plane was coming off," NTSB spokesman Mark Rosekind said at a news conference. "A component has been recovered. We have not identified the component or if it even came from the airplane ... We are going to focus on that."

The dead so far included the pilot and eight spectators. Officials said 54 people were transported to hospitals, but more came in on their own. Eight remained in critical condition late Saturday and nine were in serious condition.

Despite the large number of dead and injured, witnesses and people familiar with the race say the toll could have been much worse had the plane gone down in the larger crowd area of the stands. The plane crashed in a section of box seats that was located in front of the grandstand area where most people sat.

"This one could have been much worse if the plane had hit a few rows higher up," said Don Berliner, president of the Society of Air Racing Historians and a former Reno Air Races official. "We could be talking hundreds of deaths."

Some credit the pilot with preventing the crash from being far more deadly by avoiding the grandstand section with a last-minute climb, although it's impossible at this point to know his thinking as he was confronted with the disaster and had just seconds to respond.

Witnesses described a horrible scene after the plane struck the crowd and sent up a brown cloud of dust billowing in the wind. When it cleared moments later, motionless bodies lay strewn across the ground, some clumped together, while others stumbled around bloodied and shocked.