Reno, NV (written by Martha Bellisle/Reno Gazette-Journal) -- A builder from Gardnerville, Nev. A firefighter from Texas. An air race worker from Reno and fans from Arizona, Kansas and Washington. And a pilot who had attended the National Championship Air Races since 1969.
One by one during Sunday's tribute to the victims of the crash at last year's air race, Reno Fire Chief Tim Spencer read the names of the 11 people who died while first-responders from around the region released a white balloon in their honor.
"Words cannot express the emotion and the inspired sadness that I feel as I look at each of you," Mike Houghton, chief of the Reno Air Racing Association, said as he stood facing the box seats and grand stands, just feet from where the Galloping Ghost slammed into the tarmac one year ago Sunday.
"We have all shed many tears and have had many long conversations as we miss our loved ones and think about life the way it was," he said.
Earlier in the week, the air race association honored the heroes whose stories "were forged in the face of horror," he said.
"While there were many women and men who, after watching them over the past year, I truly consider to be heroic," Houghton said. "I honestly tell you that the families of those who suffered such great loss are truly some of my greatest heroes."
Among them, Houghton said, was Chuck Elvin, who lost his wife of 52 years, Cherie, in the crash. Chuck, his sons Bill and Brian and his daughter-in-law Linda, also lost part of their right legs and have spent the last year recovering.
Chuck, his uninjured son Jim along with Bill and his wife Rachel returned to the air races this year to continue what had been a 16-year family tradition promoted and boosted by the family's beloved matriarch, Cherie Elvin.
"I think it's been good to get some closure," Chuck said as he stood with the help of a walker in the family's box seat, 41B. "I think it's what Cherie would have wanted. My wife would have turned over in her grave and would come back and talk to me if I didn't come back to the air races.
"We also needed to come back to thank the first-responders."
On Friday, the family spent time thanking people at Renown Regional Medical Center.
Houghton told the crowd that they planned to continue the Reno Air Race tradition next year, and Chuck Elvin said he was glad. He intends to be back in Reno next year for the 50th annual National Championship Air Races.
"We did this year on pure adrenaline," he said. "Next year will be easier."
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., told the crowd that while they remember those who lost their lives, they will continue to hold those who are recovering in their thoughts and prayers.
"One year later, as this year's air races come to an end, I hope that we have taken an important first step toward recovering as a community," he said. "This process will not be quick, it will not be easy, but we will undertake it together and together we carry on the legacy of those we remember today."
Debbie Sherman, a nurse from Indiana, was in the grand stands when Jimmy Leeward's P-51 Mustang crashed. She ran down to help the injured and became known as the "belt lady" because she called out for belts to be used as tourniquets. More than a dozen men pulled off their belts and offered aid.
She was one of the first people to reach Bill Elvin, who had lost his leg and was in shock. During the air races this weekend, she ran down from the grand stands again, but this time to give Bill Elvin a hug.
"I totally recognized her when she came down," Bill said as he stood smiling with his arm around Sherman's shoulder. "I remembered her face."
"I was just doing my job," she said beaming. "The best thing for me was seeing this guy's eyes."
Many people injured or impacted by last year's crash spent much of the past few days sharing stories and giving each other moral and emotional support.
Houghton said it wasn't the economic impact or the planes that inspired them to bring back this year's air races.
"Plain and simply, it's the people," he said.
"Undoubtedly, I am a fan of aviation, but more importantly I am an avid fan of the people that make up the family of aviation -- of all of you," he said. "This past year has been one of the most challenging that I have ever known. This air race family was dealt a devastating blow exactly one year ago today."
And just as any family that experiences loss, "we have all experienced grief, sadness and tremendous sorrow," he said. "Yet at the same time, I have had the very special opportunity to meet and bond with some of the most courageous, most inspiring, most resilient individuals and families that I have ever met."