At least nine people are dead and scores more injured after a pilot participating in the Reno Air Race in Reno, Nevada lost control of his vintage plane and crashed into a VIP section full of spectators on Friday afternoon.

The race, described as “NASCAR on steroids,” features planes often going in excess of 500 miles per hour and as little as 50 feet above the ground. The pilot of the downed plane, 74-year-old veteran stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward, had flown in the competition for decades.

Witnesses saw Leeward pull up and out of the race just before his aircraft rolled and nosedived into the edge of the crowd, killing him and six spectators wounding more than 50 others. Two additional people died at area hospitals on Saturday, and others remain in critical condition.

“[The plane] absolutely disintegrated,” said Tim O’Brien, who attends the races every year. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Authorities believe Leeward’s P-51 Mustang, a World War II-era fighter plane, experienced mechanical problems, and some credit the experienced pilot for keeping the crash from being even deadlier than it was.

Johnny Norman, a spectator, said, “The way I see it, if he did do something about this, he saved hundreds if not thousands of lives because he was able to veer that plane back toward the tarmac.”

Another witness, Tim Linville, added, “If he wouldn’t have pulled up, he would have taken out the entire bleacher section.”

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Terry Williams told the Associated Press Saturday that a team has arrived from Washington to assist regional officials as they try to ascertain the cause of the crash.

A post from Leeward’s family on his Facebook page asks visitors to “join us in praying at this time for all the families affected.”

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