Registered nurse Ron Tindall of San Luis Obispo was one of the first people to reach the scene at the Reno Air Races last week after a vintage World War II fighter plane crashed into the audience, killing 10 people and injuring more than 50 others.
Tindall has been a crew member for his uncle and airman John Parker at the Reno Air Races for more than 30 years.
Moments before the crash, Tindall rode by the crowd of spectators on an antique fire engine, celebrating his uncle’s victory. Parker had just won a race.
As Tindall and the crew were nearing the hangar about a mile away, he heard a popping sound in the air and turned around to watch as 74-year-old pilot Jimmy Leeward veered up into the sky.
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When a plane is in distress it is common for it to get out of the racing circle and climb up, Tindall said. But he watched in astonishment as the plane rolled, turned back down, and crashed into a set of box seats filled with fans.“The people that got the worst of the impact were the ones that had just been standing and waving at us,” Tindall said.
He immediately started running toward the scene and realized quickly that he wouldn’t make it there fast enough on foot. He flagged a security worker on an all-terrain vehicle and told him he was a nurse.
“There was a sea of people just running away,” Tindall recalled.
At the scene, firefighters in protective suits were helping victims who lay in a pool of fuel and a thick cloud of debris and dust.
He grabbed a pair of gloves from a paramedic and bandages for wounds.
“Nothing could have prepared me for the magnitude of the scene — the number of people in need of medical treatment and the extent of injuries,” said Tindall, a registered nurse at the California Men’s Colony who has been in the medical field for more than 30 years.
Tindall and hundreds of other volunteers who ran from the stands helped emergency workers in sorting victims onto colored tarps by the extent of their injuries.
A green tarp was reserved for the walking wounded — those people who needed medical treatment for cuts or abrasions but were not critical. More critical injuries such as broken limbs were taken to a yellow tarp. The orange tarp was reserved for those with critical injuries.
Tindall searched among folding chairs strewn about from the impact, sharp and curled metal from the stands and remnants of the airplane to find the victims.
He will never forget what he saw — a leg, severed at mid-thigh, lying unattended; a mound of intestines; facial lacerations and compound fractures.
“There were so many patients with so many major injuries from the propeller slicing people as the plane came down,” Tindall said.
He silently laid a piece of cloth over one man who had died from the impact — moving on to help those who could still be helped.
From the outside looking in, the scene looked like confusion and mass hysteria, Tindall said. But for those helping, it ran like clockwork.
The hundreds of volunteers such as Tindall who rushed to the scene worked alongside about 40 trained first responders in uniform. They held intravenous bags, dressed wounds, kept the wounded conscious and distributed water.
“It just clicked like we had all been doing this together for years,” Tindall recalled.
The volunteers worked tirelessly in the heat, pooled in airplane fuel. Fortunately, no fire broke out.
When the last patient was loaded onto an ambulance, Tindall took a deep breath and looked around before slowly walking back to the airplane hangar where his uncle and son Brian waited.
“A couple of crew members asked if I was OK,” Tindall said. “They told me that I could take my gloves off and that’s when I realized I still had them on. I looked down and my T-shirt was covered in blood.”
Tindall said he was shocked to find out that only an hour had passed from the time the plane crashed to his return to the hangar.
“The fact that we had triaged, somewhat treated, and transported up to 100 people in that amount of time was spectacular,” Tindall said.