A Tragic Afternoon at the Reno Air Races

Editor’s Note: Exactly two months ago, U.S. HealthWorks doctor Anne Coatney was thrust into a tragic situation at the most unexpected time. Her story and how she handled it follows.

This sun-drenched afternoon in Reno, Nevada, was supposed to be the start of another memorable weekend for Anne Coatney. A big fan of aeronautics, she was back in a familiar place, her eyes transfixed on the sky as she sat in Box 68 at the annual Reno Air Races.

But for Coatney, a doctor for U.S. HealthWorks Medical Group in Seattle, the day turned tragic as a plane crashed into the viewing stands.

That Friday, Sept. 16, as Dr. Coatney attentively gazed up at the sky during the featured Unlimited Race, fear engulfed the tens of thousands of spectators as a vintage World War II-era fighter plane, traveling in excess of 450 mph, careened out of control.

'Taxi' photo (c) 2006, Dylan Ashe - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
For a moment, it appeared to be headed right for the very box that Dr. Coatney occupied with 13 friends and acquaintances.

“Practically everyone hit the deck around me, but I just stood up and watched it,” recalls Dr. Coatney. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I may die!’ Everyone was fearful for their life.”

There was little advance warning when the modified vintage airplane slammed into the tarmac at Reno-Stead Airport, resulting in the worse accident – 11 deaths, 74 injured – in the history of American air race events. Before this year’s disaster, 18 pilots had lost their lives at the Reno Air Races since 1972, but never a spectator.

The plane piloted by Jimmy Leeward crashed near the grandstands around 50 yards away.

A doctor with 19 years of emergency medical treatment experience, Dr. Coatney took a quick look around her immediate area, then sprinted straight for the crash scene.

As she rushed to the accident location, in her path were debris from the plane, and several dead bodies, including a person in a wheel chair, but she remained focused on getting to those she could still help.

“I was running toward the crash. Your adrenaline takes over and you just react on instinct. I didn’t know I could run that fast,” Dr. Coatney said. “I immediately was looking for someone in charge and, luckily, I found him quickly. I told him I was an emergency room doctor and he told me to go to the red zone, where the most critically injured people were being taken.”

The first person Dr. Coatney encountered was a 54-year-old man who was in mild shock. His right arm was severed at the elbow and he had an open skull fracture. Because she had no medical equipment, soothing words and makeshift treatment were all Dr. Coatney could immediately provide.

“All I had were my hands,” she said.

She kept those hands busy, trying to stop the flow of blood while keeping the man calm and taking some vitals with the aid of her watch. For bandages, Coatney used cloth given to her by helpful spectators who were cutting up nearby curtains from the box seats. Eventually she managed to stop the man’s bleeding in several places.

After helping load the man into a helicopter, she was off to the next injured person, a woman who had two fractured legs, open wounds, internal bleeding, and was in Level 2 shock. Dr. Coatney later treated a 29-year-old woman who had problems breathing due to shrapnel sticking out of her chest. Her leg was fractured and she had a collapsed lung.

Exhausted and back at her hotel that evening, Coatney called the hospital and checked on all five patients she had treated.

Dr. Coatney said her three years of residency at an emergency department in downtown Detroit, where caring for 20 gun-shot wound patients a night was not unusual, helped prepare her for Reno.

“I have learned how to remain objective and just do what I was trained to do,” Dr. Coatney said. “I thank God I had such good emergency training from my ER director in Detroit. It helped me be ready for a disaster like this one.”

Dr. Coatney has been coming to the Reno show for 19 straight years. It was quite an ordeal, but Coatney insists that she will be back in Reno next year and sitting in Box 68 once again.

“When you look back on what happened, you just think that you were lucky to live through it,” Dr. Coatney said. “It makes you look at things differently and you think that every day is a gift. It was a life-changing moment. But I’m absolutely coming back. I’ve gotten to know so many people that come to Reno every year and I’m part of the aviation community.”

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