Two offshore powerboat racers died Wednesday after their catamaran went airborne at high speed and crashed, marring the opening of three days of racing at the Key West World Championship, officials said.

Big Thunder Marine — a 46-foot Skater catamaran with four 1,200 horsepower engines that competed in the Superboat Unlimited Class — came down so hard its right front hull was severely damaged on the third lap of Wednesday's race inside Key West Harbor, organizers said.

Superboat International President John Carbonell said he witnessed the crash, which occurred adjacent to a spectator area.

"He was probably going about 130 mph and the boat's propellers were barely in the water," Carbonell said. "The boat apparently caught some air and went bow (front) up; straight into the air, came down and went backwards."

He identified the dead as Robert M. Morgan, of Sunrise Beach, Mo., and Jeffrey Tillman, of Kaiser, Mo. They were piloting the boat as throttleman and driver respectively.

Carbonell said rescue divers deployed to the accident site in less than a minute. Both men were removed alive from the wreckage of the catamaran and transported to Lower Keys Medical Center, he added.

Tillman died either before or just after arrival at the hospital, and Morgan apparently soon after leaving Key West aboard an air trauma ambulance, according to organizers.

Carbonell said the force of the boat coming down was powerful and crushing.

Morgan had come out of retirement to race with SBI this year, Carbonell said.

"He told me a few days ago that this (Key West) was his last hurrah," he said "He was a helluva of a nice guy and is going to be missed."

Despite the accident and rescue efforts, the race later continued. But Carbonell said he stopped the race before the scheduled seventh lap due to another accident, which stretched medical and safety resources. Scott Roman of Marlton, N.J., and Ron Roman of Lumberton, N.J., escaped injury after their Motley Crew boat overturned.

Carbonell said that the world championship will continue with scheduled races Friday and the finals Sunday.

"This is a very dangerous sport and the racers know that," he said. "You push it to the edge and see how far you go."