Reno crash survivors from Houston recall experience

September 18, 2011 8:31:57 PM PDT
Two Houstonians were in the crowd Friday night when a plane crashed at an air show in Reno, and they are now back home and sharing their experiences.

Capt. Jim Shawn is an experienced pilot and airplane mechanic. His son, Cadet 1st Lieutenant James Shawn, is also a pilot and an emergency medical technician. They are both members of the Thunderbird Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol.

For a father and son who say flying is in their blood, a trip to the Reno air races was the vacation of a lifetime.

But there was sudden shift in their heart-pumping exhilaration at the event.

They threw their bodies to the ground as the plane crashed, peeling themselves up later to mass chaos.

"It replays, and what I saw flashes through my head," Lt. Shawn said.

They snapped just a few pictures of the scattered wreckage and the crash site. The plane left a three-foot deep, eight-foot wide crater in the tarmac, and debris spread out over more than an acre.

Six spectators and the pilot died on impact. Two more people died at the hospital.

"A lot of people just looked at each other in disbelief at what just happened. And then what [my son] wants to do is go help," Capt. Shawn said.

A certified EMT and fresh graduate of Royal High School, Lt. Shawn jumped into action.

"I grabbed some gloves, grabbed a backboard and started to help out," he said.

Ironically, an EMT convention in Reno was held the same days as the air races, which meant others in the audience could help, too. But Lt. Shawn was the youngest.

Helpless, but proud, Capt. Shawn described watching his son tend to patients for hours. He says the smell of oil and fuel faded into that of human flesh. His job was tagging the dead.

The father and son say walked away with scarring memories, but a renewed sense of love and duty.

"Watching him go to work, I felt -- wow. He's impressing me. He's shown me what he's able to do," Capt. Shawn said.

"I'll never forget what I saw there," Lt. Shawn said. "I'll never forget what I felt."

Lt. Shawn will be honored for his service at the crash site. The incident remains under investigation.

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