"Gramma!" There was no pilot in the plane that crashed!"
Seeing, hearing and feeling the horror of this tragedy through the eyes of your grandchildren, is heart pounding, gut wrenching and the making of our most feared nightmares.
My four and a half year old grandson declared the above. Front and center, just 20 feet from the propellor's final stop, he saw the whole thing. Within seconds, grabbed away from his post at the fence that lined the runway, he was swept away as fast as possible to safety from flying debris, metal chards and bits of flesh that splattered the surrounding spectator area for the annual air races. Daddy enfolded him, held tightly to his chest, breaking into a sprint as fast and far as possible, fearing the anticipated explosion that never came.
Simultaneously, my daughter grabbed and ran with my two and a half year old grand daughter, further away from her son. In the split second maternal instinct to run away with her tiny toddler, she looked back sharply at the spot where her son stood, shocked and crying, while all she could do in that moment, was to run and pray. She could only get to one of her precious babies in these mere moments of sheer panic and the unknowing of what was next. A parent's worst fear.
"My mommy 'protecteded' me and ran away!" The jumbled words of my tiny grand daughter were as clear as her almond shaped brown eyes. The words of my grand children, who were among the smallest witnessess to this rare disaster, rang like deafening words of doom in my ears and head for days.
Lacking the ability or desire to talk or write about this near family tradgedy, both paralyzed me and stunned me deeply, until I could get back to Tahoe to see their miraculous eyes and arms held out wide to hug and kiss gramma and grampa, six days after their ordeal. It was torture not being with them sooner; not being there to reassure them and comfort them and the precious daughter that has become the most incredible, loving mother I know.
Rapidly escaping their little mouths, their words of excitement tumbled over each other with declarations of the crash they saw; of the plane that indeed had crashed before their very own baby eyes. Would they have nightmares? Would they ever get on a plane? Would they remember this horrific sight? Would they be skitzy at the sound of jet engines or the faltering sputter of a failed engine and a sound that sends off an alarm so big you cannot know what it is you are hearing or seeing?
They are so young and were so uncomfortably close to this tragic accident. The annual family tradition to spend a few days camping outside Stead Airforce Base near Reno, Nevada, where they would see their beloved Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds or perhaps the Canadian Snowbirds, in the spectacular performances of the best pilots in the world, was so highly anticipated. There is nothing quite like it. The excitement of the crowd, the colorful airplanes, the crisp uniforms of the pilots, their confident smiles and friendly introductions to the many spectators lucky enough to be close to their entrance and departure from the air field...where one of a kind shows delight and amaze the many, of all ages, all backgrounds, all there for the thrill of it all and the fantasy for some of one day becoming a pilot.
It might be the ultimate dream for a grandson who would press himself as close as he could to the fence for the best vantage point; a fence separating the spectators from the runway where the action packed day of eye popping stunts, air racing of all kinds, was a pretty big deal for this "little man." The planes big and small, bi-planes dancing through the clouds like ballerinas, jets so loud and fast you bearly know where to look to take in all that they create in nearly impossible maneuvers that dazzle, kept the air race ethusiasts on the edge of their seats.
It is unbearable to digest all the pain of loss in a failure so big; one that has left dozens of families devastated by the sudden deaths of their loved ones and the ones that linger still, fighting for their lives in hospitals in Nevada. The prayers continue, beseach and implore the gods for help and healing. It is unthinkable for those who lost family members, friends and neighbors in seats so close and who disappeared into the dust of the unanticipated collision that left thousands in silent shock.
There was no explosion or flames of deeper devastation that awaited the incalculable numbers of those running for their lives. Yet all went defeningly silent in the wake of the discintegration of the P-51 Mustang, flown by a veteran and Hollywood stunt pilot, Jimmy Leeward, beloved by more than can be expressed. He accomplished, in those final moments, to avoid crashing his aircraft into hundreds of people in the grandstands, before losing consciousness and disappearing, slumped over inside the cockpit, giving the "Galloping Ghost" the appearance of being a pilotless craft of mysterious, shocking twisted fate.
A twist of fate caused by the broken, missing trim tab from the tail of the aircraft, so seemingly small, yet so huge in it's intrinsic importance to the integrity of this flying marvel, likely caused the sudden loss of control that turned a routine, well manicured race into a nose dive of chilling proportions. Had it not been late in the race, with the fuel so low, this would have been a far graver ending to an already unthinkable disaster. The utter discintegration of the P-51 Mustang, flying at a speed of 494 MPH, was likened to the similar affect of the jets that flew into the Twin Towers on 9/11, as they, too, simply disappeared into dust.
There are disasters that are beyond our control. There are tragedies we rarely imagine. And there is trauma that cannot be fully described or understood. My hope for my daughter's family, is that the impact of this memory will not shatter the desire to continue a tradition that is so precious to so many and to the countless pilots that work so hard to bring such beauty and wonder to the skies for the rest of us to observe with childlike wonder and amazement.
Yesterday afternoon, we took our grandchildren to the local Tahoe airport for dinner, as is our habit most Fridays after pre-school and daycare, to watch with great fascination, the planes and private jets that frequent our little airport and the helicopters that take off and land while we look on in absolute awe and appreciation. This has become our little tradition, too. And it's one that we hesitatd to return to, so soon after the Reno Air crash.
However, we took our cues from the children, who wanted to return to see and hear the sights and sounds that have become so commonplace in their little lives. They were so happy and animated to see the planes start their engines, taxi down the runway and take off to the back drop of the mountains and waning light of the pure blue sky, that is Lake Tahoe.
Though the memory of the crash will linger in their young minds and psyches for some time to come, the fear that ensued will fade in time while new memories replace those of that tragic day. Mom and Dad, however, will continue to replay that day, the trauma that will live on in the parental psyche, reliving the events, the what-ifs, the too close for comfort...the gut wrenching actions to shelter their precious children and themselves.
They were the lucky ones.
I am so deeply grateful that they survived a nearly unsurvivable occurrence.
It wasn't their time.
September 16, 2011 Reno Air Races
This was the first year in three that I didn't attend the air races with my daughter's family and grandchildren.
This is just part of their story and mine.
The story of these events continues and will unfold as the investigation of the crash will not conclude for many months to come.
Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the victioms of the crash, the numerous others who were seriously injured and to all who witnessed this life changing event and tragedy.