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East Toledo native saw Reno air show horror

Tragedy leads to new respect for first responders

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Bruce Dalton, an East Toledo native, was sitting at the top of the grandstands about 200 feet away from the crash site.

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Bruce Dalton knew something was wrong with the stunt plane as it suddenly accelerated straight up into the air, moving like a rocket.

It was Sept. 16 and Mr. Dalton, an East Toledo native, was sitting at the top of the grandstands during the National Championship Air Races and Air Show in Reno.

He'd been to this race twice before and was attending the show last month with his cousin, Joseph Dalton, who also grew up in East Toledo, and two retired fighter pilots in their 70s from New York.

Mr. Dalton loved how fast the airplanes moved only a few hundred feet above him. It was like watching NASCAR in the sky, he said.

"It's just thrilling," said Mr. Dalton, 54, who lives in Pleasant Hill in northern California and sells jewelry at festivals with his wife. "There's nothing like that."

But this would be a race that went terribly wrong as Mr. Dalton watched the stunt plane fly toward the audience, then crash into the tarmac, about 200 feet away from his seat, killing 11 people and injuring dozens more.

At first, Mr. Dalton said, when he noticed the plane was pulling up and out of the race he assumed there was a mechanical problem. Maybe the plane overheated, he figured.

But within a span of only 10 seconds, the plane shot straight up into the air and then went into a roll. As the plane dropped back down, it looked like it was heading behind the crowd, then moved right toward the grandstand, Mr. Dalton said.

He froze. He didn't know where to run.

"We just waited for him to hit us -- all of us did. It was so quick. We didn't have time to panic," said Mr. Dalton, who went to Toledo Public Schools and graduated from the University of Toledo in 1984. "There was no way to do anything about it.

"I thought I was going to do die, but it was OK. It was just the way it was."

The crowd watched in horror as the plane crashed into the tarmac near the box seats, missing the grandstand.

Sitting in the 39th row of bleachers, about 200 feet from the crash, Mr. Dalton felt wet, like he was being sprayed with jet fuel and water vapor.

Pieces of shrapnel flew in the air, cutting spectators. Mr. Dalton took home a four-inch piece of jagged aluminum that almost hit him -- a grim reminder of the day.

Mr. Dalton and his group left the scene a short time later as emergency personnel rushed to treat the injured and people washed the blood and dirt off themselves in portable restrooms outside the grandstand.

They went back to their hotel to wash, then met in the lounge to talk about the horror they witnessed.

"I wonder if we're dead right now," one of the retired pilots joked, but nobody laughed.

"If we're dead right now, we'd be in a steakhouse, not a cocktail bar," Mr. Dalton's cousin deadpanned.

Now that days have passed since the air show, Mr. Dalton said he finds comfort in talking about what he's witnessed, especially with people like his sister, Joan Martin, a retired registered nurse from Whitehouse, who knows what trauma is like.

The tragedy has given him a new respect for what soldiers, police officers, firefighters, and other front-line and emergency workers go through in their daily lives, he said.

"It's made me think more about people who are subjected to this kind of thing more than once. … It's amazing to be able to deal with that," Mr. Dalton said. "I've never seen people die -- let alone die violently. It's a major moment in my life I'll obviously never forget."

Contact Gabrielle Russon at: grusson@theblade.com or 419-724-6026.

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