LOS ANGELES, Sept 17, 2011 (AFP) - The death toll from a horrific crash at a US air show rose to nine Saturday, as investigators sifted through wreckage of a vintage plane ploughed into the ground yards from a packed grandstand.
Crash experts confirmed that they were looking at reports that a key part of the World War II's tailfin had fallen off before the accident, saying they had found a component on the ground.
Eight of the 54 injured in the crash remained in critical condition, according to updated figures released by the two main local hospitals where casualties were taken.
Two people had already been confirmed dead in hospital overnight, said Reno Police Department deputy chief Dave Evans, adding: "We also have a total of seven fatalities that we know of... on the tarmac to include the pilot."
The vintage P-51 Mustang was flying in the National Championship Air Races Friday when its elderly pilot, a race veteran, apparently lost control of the aircraft and it plunged at full speed into spectators.
Amateur video captured the moment the plane, a single-seat fighter aircraft from the 1940s called the "Galloping Ghost," barrel-rolled wildly through the sky and smashed at a near-vertical angle into a roped-off area for spectators, narrowly missing a grandstand packed with many more people.
An official from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said it was "very unlikely" that the aircraft had a black box, but said investigators were aware of reports that a piece of the plane may have come off before the crash.
"We are aware of that. In fact, a component has been recovered in the area where that was observed. But I think it is critical at this point to know that we have not identified the component," said the official, Mark Rosekind.
The aircraft was flown by Florida businessman and pilot Jimmy Leeward, reported to be 74 years old. He had raced at the event since 1975, and had served as a stunt pilot for several Hollywood films.
Witnesses said the aircraft crashed into an area of box seats, while some said the pilot prevented even greater casualties by swerving to avoid hitting the grandstand itself.
"It pretty well wiped out the front of the box area," said Mike Houghton, the head of the Reno Air Racing Association. Video of the accident, shot from the grandstand, showed people gasping in horror as the plane came down.
RARA spokesman Mike Draper said the plane was a lap or two into the race when Leeward called in a mayday.
"We don't know why it crashed. The pilot did call in. He did pull out of the lap, which is what they do. They usually pull up, directly up to clear the race track," he added.
Eyewitness Ben Cissell praised the flying ace. "I think that that pilot in the last two seconds pulled up because he saw the bleachers and I would guess he probably saved 200 to 300 other people," he told CNN.
"I was about 100 feet (30 meters) from the crash site and I would think that the plane hit right at about the middle of those boxes," he said of the roped off area.
Houghton dismissed suggestions that the health of the pilot could have had a role in the crash.
"All of his medical records and everything were up to date, spot on and Jimmy was a very experienced and talented, qualified pilot," he said.
Leeward's family voiced its shock on his Facebook page, saying: "We are deeply saddened by the tragedy at the air race today. Please join us in praying at this time for all the families affected."