RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, West Germany -- Three Italian Air Force jets collided during an air show at a U.S. military base Sunday and one crashed in flames into a crowd of spectators, killing at least 34 people and injuring several hundred, authorities said.
One of the planes from the Italian acrobatic team crashed into a crowd about 200 yards from the VIP stand at the Ramstein Air Base and exploded in a giant fireball. A number of families had been picnicking in the area, and many of the dead were children, police said.
A police spokesman in nearby Kaiserslautern said at least 34 people were killed and several hundred were injured, including 30 in critical condition and 60 with serious burns.
It was unknown if there any American casualties, and authorities were having difficulty identifying the dead because some were burned beyond recognition and others were decapitated.
Authorities said the second of three jets crashed on the field at the giant Ramstein Air Base, headquarters of the U.S. Air Force in Europe, and the third went down in nearby woods. All three pilots were killed.
The 3:45 p.m. crash triggered panic among the 300,000 spectators at the U.S. Air Force's annual air show at the base near the French border in the southwestern section of the country.
Witnesses said after the planes collided people shouted in pain and fear as burning debris fell around them.
Some ran around aimlessly and others sought their relatives, one witness said. He said injured lay everywhere.
'There are many children among the dead and injured,' an ambulance worker said. 'Their parents looked for them everywhere.'
He said many people suffered burns on their backs as they ran from the burning plane.
The tragedy was the latest in a series of fatal accidents at European air shows this year and occurred after opposition political parties and religious leaders in the area had called on residents to boycott the show.
Bernhard Vogel, Christian Democratic premier of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, called it 'one of the worst tragedies that ever took place in the state.'
The U.S. Air Force used buses and cars to rush the injured to hospitals after all available ambulances and ambulance helicopters in the area had been used.
The U.S. Embassy in Bonn said in a statement it was deeply saddened by the tragedy.
'We feel great compassion for the Italian team, the Americans and the Germans that were involved in today's tragic event,' the statement said. 'Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those involved in this catastrophe.'
The three Italian-made Macchi MB339-A jets of the Italian Air Force were part of a group of 10 aircraft in the Italian acrobatic team, Frecce Tricolori, or Tricolor Arrows.
Witnesses said the planes collided as they flew about 100 feet off the ground near the control tower. One of the jets hit the other two planes as they flew in formation, and all three crashed.
'The plane that went into the crowd was like a bomb,' one witness said.
West German television, which was broadcasting the air show, showed that five jets were coming out of a loop at low altitude when two jets touched wings and went spiraling out of control.
The broadcast showed the burning wreckage of one jet slamming into an area crowded with spectators and exploding in a ball of fire. Many private cars were seen burning as hundreds of spectators ran screaming from the field.
The annual show was held over the objections of the opposition Social Democratic and Greens parties and the Lutheran Church in Rhineland-Palatinate, in which the air base is located. The church had asked Germans to boycott the show, but as usual a huge crowd attended.
Picketers outside the field carried signs reading, 'Air shows frighten us. Stop them.'
Immediately after the accident, West German Defense Minister Rupert Scholz, who had defended the shows, announced the cancellation of a West German air force air show scheduled for Sept. 25.
Rudolf Scharping, head of the Social Democratic Party in the state, demanded that 'the dangerous and nonsensical military air shows finally be halted for all time.'
The Americans halted the show Sunday immediately after the accident. The appearance of the Italian team had been scheduled as a high point of the show, in which American, British and French planes also took part.
Gen. Lawrence Boese, commander of the Ramstein Air Base, said the accident was 'the biggest tragic accident that ever took place on a large European military airfield.'
He ordered a commission to investigate the accident.
In Belgium Sunday, a Finnish aircraft spun into an uncontrolled dive and crashed during an air show at an Belgian Air Force base, killing the pilot, authorities said.
Military officials said the pilot, identified as Ari Pipp, 44, of the Finnish air stunt team, was believed killed instantly when his Finnish-made propeller-driven Valmed aircraft crashed in a meadow outside the Kleine Brogal base of the Belgian Air Force, about 40 miles east of Brussels.
The officials said Pipp was part of a two aircraft formation doing a mirror-image flight.
The crashes Sunday were the latest in a series this year of fatal incidents at West European air shows and expositions.
Six people died at Pouilloux, France, on Feb. 3 when a vintage Dassault-Flamand bomber crashed on a low pass at an exhibition, and two died at Hanover, West Germany, on May 6 when a British Chinook helicopter exploded while landing at an air exposition.
On June 26, three people were killed when an Airbus A320 jet crashed on a low pass at an airshow near Mulhouse, in eastern France. The pilot of a Mirage 5 fighter-bomber died when his jet crashed at an airshow near Hechtel, Belgium, on Aug. 7.