Jasper resident assists victims in air show disaster
by Daniel Gaddy
Oct 02, 2011 | 1774 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jasper native Jessica Sanders watched her father place fourth in his division at the Reno Air Races on Sept. 16, .

Later that afternoon, she went to the VIP boxes with two crew members from her father’s team.

Sanders said the two men met World War II POWs, former astronauts and pilots whom she described as grandfathers of aviation.

“They were just out of their minds talking to people up there,” she said.

As Sanders hugged an old friend, two modified World-War-II-era airplanes screamed by at nearly 500 mph. However, she said the third plane sounded abnormal.

The third P-51 Mustang pitched up and looked like it would go behind the crowds, but then turned and made a nose dive for the VIP area.

“It felt like it took 30 minutes for that airplane to crash,” she said, though it took less than three seconds to hit the tarmac.

The plane drove into the ground less than 20 feet away from where Sanders once stood. The crash killed the pilot and two spectators instantly.

“It was the loudest noise you’ve ever heard,” she said.

Video of the crash and photos from the disaster would flood the Internet and news agencies within minutes. However, Sanders said photographs cannot begin to convey the chaos in which 11 people would die and 66 people would be seriously injured.

Sanders described the seconds after the crash as a war scene. She said that, at first, all she could hear was her own breathing. Slowly, the volume came back for her to hear the clamoring of spectators and the announcers asking them to keep their distance.

The first two people Sanders came across were already dead, and she moved on to the third, an older man who had severe trauma to his face and torso.

She could tell he was going into shock and, to keep him conscious, she tried to make mindless conversation. She said she told him he reminded her of Doc Holliday from the movie “Tombstone.” She went on about how Val Kilmer’s character was the heart and soul of the film.

Sanders said the man died within minutes, and she moved on to another victim, a girl younger than her, whom she stayed with until medics rushed her to a local hospital.

While Sanders was helping with victims, her father, local pilot Joey “Gordo” Sanders, and her mother, Debbie Young-Sanders, frantically scanned the crowd for their daughter.

Video footage of the disaster shows Jessica Sanders in the background embracing her parents and then pulling away from them to return to the injured girl.

Looking back on the disaster, Joey Sanders said he is incredibly proud of his daughter’s heroism.

“She went above and beyond the call of duty,” he said. “I'm pretty sure if she was a boy she would have been one of the first guys with a foot on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Joey Sanders also said dozens of people deserve to be commended for helping those injured in the crash. He recalled one group of pilots who fired up a Vietnam-era helicopter that was on display and used the aircraft to transport the wounded.

Despite the tragedy that occurred this September, the Sanders family said they will return to the races if they are held next year.

Jessica Sanders said those involved with the Reno Air Races treat one another like family.

“Even though your racing against some guy, he's in your pit that night eating chips and salsa,” she said.

Joey Sanders said the races are going on their 50th anniversary, and though 20 pilots have died in the history of the annual competition, no bystanders have ever been injured until this year.

He compared the likelihood of the crash to a tractor trailer truck losing its power steering and running into a shopping mall.

“It was just a freak, fluke occurrence,” he said.

Joey Sanders, a 25-year aviation veteran who flew missions during Desert Storm, flies in the T6 division of the Reno Air Races. He describes it as NASCAR for airplanes. His plane, nicknamed Big Red, races with no modifications or additions to the aircraft. He said competitors in his division must show Federal Aviation Administration officials their flight records and a committee overlooks their aircraft before racing.

The plane that crashed this month, however, belonged to the Unlimited division, in which pilots can make any modifications to their aircraft.

Joey Sanders said that, despite that fact, none of the pilots at the Reno Air Races would do anything that would remotely endanger spectators.

When asked if he expects tighter regulations on the races, he said “it’s in the hands of the FAA now.”