Grief counselors help after tragic air race crash

Mixed in with the hot-dog stands, souvenir T-shirt tents, barbecue pits and model airplanes is a different kind of booth this year behind the grandstand at the 49th annual National Championship Air Races.

Race organizers have contracted with a private firm to provide two grief counselors to help spectators and participants alike deal with what is sure to be an emotional return for some after last year's deadly crash.

"We suspect everybody watching the air races will have a different emotional reaction," race spokesman Mike Draper said as planes roared overhead during Wednesday's qualifying heats. "If they struggle with their emotions, they'll have someone to talk to."

Roger Artie can relate. He saw Jimmy Leeward's P-51 crash nose-first into the box seats in front of the grandstand last Sept. 16, killing Leeward and 10 spectators and injuring more than 70.

"I was stunned when it happened," said Artie, a longtime air race volunteer and retired mental health technician from Reno.

"The plane crash was so close to me that I could have been killed if it wasn't so windy," he told The Associated Press during a break in the action Wednesday at Reno-Stead Airport.

Artie said he couldn't bring himself to return there for more than eight months after the crash and still hasn't visited the actual impact site on the tarmac, which has been paved over with asphalt. But he said he avoided the temptation to bottle up his emotions inside.

"It's really helped for me to talk about it. It is a catharsis," Artie said in an interview Wednesday as jets, biplanes and vintage World War II fighters roared above the race course where competitors fly wingtip-to-wingtip at speeds up to 500 mph.

"People have to be brought face-to-face with their emotions and process them," he said.

Tim Maloney, another veteran air race volunteer and pastor of the Calvary Chapel in Petaluma, Calif., who has helped provide informal counseling to some fellow volunteers, agreed.

"It's the guys who stuffed their emotions and said, 'I'm ok,' those are the ones who will have problems," said Maloney, who praised the racing association for contracting with Empathia Inc., a workplace wellness firm with offices in Waukesha, Wis., and Westlake Village, Calif.

"You are not going to have a lot of people flock to the tent but those who do will really need the help," he said Wednesday.

The tragedy has proven too traumatic for some to return.

Some of Leeward's family had considered coming but his widow, Bette, decided she "emotionally wasn't up to it," said Mike Houghton, president of the Reno Air Racing Association.

A number of area schools have decided not to send field trips there this year but school district officials said they were reluctant to draw a direct connection to the crash.

But Rick Dinoso, assistant manager of a sports bar in Sparks who had worked as a vendor at the air races before, said it was one of the reasons he wasn't attending.

"I've got my daughter and I don't want her to be there," he said. "And her ears are sensitive."

Lorraine Petersen of Reno said some friends questioned why she and her husband would want to attend.

"They were surprised we were coming out because they thought it would be too traumatic," she said under Wednesday's sunny skies about 11 miles north of Reno. "But my husband and I have no concern about the safety of the event. Many more people are killed in traffic accidents than plane crashes."

The qualifying heats that began Tuesday and continued Wednesday typically attract only die-hard fans.

Crowds will begin to grow Thursday, when the mayors of Reno and Sparks will help lead a special opening ceremony and tribute to the emergency crews that initially responded to the crash. Another special tribute planned Sunday will focus on the victims and families of victims.

Maloney said it could take just a "trigger event" for some to be overcome with emotion — a loud noise, another crash or a visit to the spot where the plane crashed.

A pilot escaped injury after making an emergency, rough landing with a landing gear problem on Tuesday. But the scene of fire trucks responding to the edge of the runway and the dust cloud sent into the sky when the plane spun off into the sagebrush probably shook some people up, he said.

Maloney emphasized a visit to the counseling booth won't necessarily come with any guarantees.

"One of the biggest questions we always get is 'Why did God allow this to happen?'" he said. "Unfortunately, there is no answer to that question. Accidents happen."