Kathleen Merryman
The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash

Oct. 01–Three Tacoma firefighters went to September’s Reno Air Races to revel in aviation’s living history.

Instead, they battled death on the tarmac.

Former Army paratrooper Jeff Wyrwitzke, 56, has been with Tacoma Fire Department for 16 years, 13 of them as a firefighter paramedic. He’s been going to the Reno Air Races at Stead Field since 2000, and bringing friends to the front row box seats he’s had since 2002.

Bill Dixon and his wife, Annmarie, were the first to join him. Dixon, 56, has been a firefighter for 38 years, 28 of them with TFD. Before that, he was a firefighter and air-sea rescue specialist in the Air Force Lt. David Elmer, 50, joined them for the first time this year. He’s served 22 years with TFD, the last 15 as a lieutenant with fire communications.

Their box, A-17, is pretty close to heaven for fans of airshows and races with seats in the Valley of Speed. “I’m an aviation enthusiast,” Wyrwitzke, said. “I like war birds and speed.”

Pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74, had put more speed on his old war bird. He’d shortened wings on the World War II P-51 Mustang, modified the engine and upped its potential speed from 400 to 500 miles per hour.

Even without that work, the P-51 was notoriously headstrong, Dixon said.

“They tend to go up,” he said. “Not the pilot, the plane.”

Add speed, and that mechanical urge intensifies. The pilot depends on elevator trim tabs to keep the plane from pointing its nose at the sun.

Leeward called his plane the Galloping Ghost, and in the last race on Friday, Sept. 16, flew it against RareBear, an F-8 Bearcat, and Strega, a witch of a P-51D.

“These were the ones we really came to see,” Wyrwitzke said. “They’re the biggest, the fastest, make the most noise and fly low to the ground.”

But Annmarie Dixon wanted to leave. She said it was about avoiding traffic, but what she really wanted was out. The Dixons started out after the race started.

“Usually, we’d stop and look,” Bill Dixon said. “But she said something was pushing us along. I didn’t feel it.” Wyrwitzke had sensed something, too. He usually carries some first aid supplies in his bag. That morning, he took out a wadded mass of plastic gloves, separated them and put them back one by one for easy access.

“I had this unique feeling of being in a vulnerable place,” he said.

The Dixons were almost to the grandstands when, photos of the race show, something flew off Galloping Ghost. National Transportation Safety Board investigators found an elevator trim tab a mile from the box seats. Galloping Ghost turned straight up.

“It just shot up in the air,” Wyrwitzke said. “It went up, turned a back flip and started coming down. It looked like it was coming at us.”

It hit 70 yards from Wyrwitzke’s box seats.

The men remember the sound as more bang than boom. They remember a smash of dust and debris shooting up. They remember being astonished that, given the fuel in the plane, there was no fire.

They heard announcer Frank Kingston Smith try to manage the crowd.

“If you are not hurt, please leave,” Smith said. “If you have medical skills, please help.”

Dixon, Elmer and Wyrwitzke sprinted toward the crash.

In seconds, they were at a mass of twisted tubing, bunting, seats and people.

“I didn’t discern a piece of anything that looked like an airplane at all,” Wyrwitzke said.

“It was just shrapnel,” Dixon said. “Aluminum shrapnel. That is what did the damage.”

“There were hands, arms, legs, pieces of people everywhere,” said Wyrwitzke. “Some places you’d walk, and it was slippery with human remains.”

In the total to date, 11 people have died, and 74 were injured.

Wyrwitzke was the first to reach an unconscious woman in her 30s.

“Her one leg was horribly twisted, and she had an open fracture of her left wrist,” he said.

Somehow, he said, a truck load of backboards had arrived. He was trying to load her onto one when her breathing became erratic.

“Out of the blue, someone showed up with a tracheal tube,” Wyrwitzke said.

He inserted it, and with help, carried her to the red zone from which critical patients were being evacuated.

“I knelt down with her, and her respiration became erratic,” Wyrwitzke said. “I yelled that we needed a resuscitation bag. I probably should have realized she was not going to survive. Then, all of a sudden, she stopped breathing. She died. I felt really helpless and hopeless. I couldn’t help her.”

He had not looked behind him to see what was happening in the stands.

Up there, people were taking off their belts and throwing them to medics to use as tourniquets. They were tossing down any clean piece of clothing that might be used as a bandage or compress. They were doing the best they could.

“From there, I went to a guy with a severed leg,” Wyrwitzke said.

One of those belts had stopped the bleeding, saved his life.

“I was kneeling next to him, and there was an anesthesiologist and a surgeon. “We got an IV started.”

They asked him his name.

“Brad,” he said, and tried to sit up.

“Brad, don’t do that,” they told him.

They scrambled to find enough tape to secure the IV tube. They carried him to a helicopter, and, when they looked down the line, saw the Huey from the display area, ready, once again, to evacuate the wounded.

Elmer found a senior man trying to get from the treatment area to the crash site. The firefighter held him, and the man sobbed on his shoulder. He was trying to get to a young man sitting in a wheelchair. Alone of all the seats, it was upright. Elmer guessed the young man had had cerebral palsy. He knew he was dead.

Dixon, wearing Wyrwitzke’s exam gloves, gathered bunting to make a compress for the back of a man who looked like he’d been blasted with a shotgun.

Looking up from that patient, he saw a man struggling to get to the site.

“He was a red patient,” Dixon said, and had left the critical-care area.

“I came back to find my wife,” he said pointing to the crash as Dixon moved him to safety.

“I found an elderly man and asked, ‘Are you OK?’ He said, ‘I can’t find my little guy.’ It was his grandson,” Dixon said.

He took the man to the green zone, where they found the boy, relatively well, and waiting.

“That was a bright spot,” Dixon said.

There were odd miracles. Dixon found glasses, intact, and got them to their owners.

There were stretches. Ambulances left with three patients in the back and one in the front passenger seat. The event’s disaster plan had worked. An unusual abundance of medical professionals used it to save lives.

“Everybody was out of there in 62 minutes,” Elmer said of the patients.

The Tacoma firefighters joined the traffic jam leaving the airfield.

Back home, Wyrwitzke heard from a friend.

“They just had a guy on TV who lost a leg. He wants to thank the people who helped him,” the friend said. “I wonder if he was your guy.”

Wyrwitzke doesn’t know.

“I keep getting asked if Reno has thanked us,” Dixon said. “I tell people that Reno didn’t know we were there.”

Oh, Jim, yes, Reno did.

Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677