Texas Man Remembered For Love Of Flying and Racing Cars

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PANAMA CITY BEACH - Panama City Beach police are still trying to find out why 62-year-old Thomas Saunders fell. His friends back home in Dallas are remembering a man who loved flying and racing cars.

"You know I woke up this morning thinking I hope it was all a dream and, you know, I guess not," said Greg Piper, a family friend.

Greg Piper can't believe someone he considered a brother is gone. Saunders was chaperoning his 18 year old daughter and four of her friends from St. Teresa's Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, on a spring break trip.

The vacation took a turn for the worst Wednesday when Saunders fell from the 12th floor of the Holiday Inn Resort on Front Beach Road and landed on the roof of the lobby atrium.

"It's just I'm going to miss him and I know a lot of people will," said Piper.

Authorities still aren't sure how it happened. His family says Saunders suffered a stroke three months ago, forcing him out of his 36 year career as an American Airlines pilot, flying international routes.

Investigators say another medical episode may have played a role in the fall. Another possibility is Saunders was leaning over the balcony to watch some F-22 fighter jets from Tyndall Air Force Base, and lost his balance.

From watching the hotel surveillance video, investigators say they can't tell if the fall was an accident or suicide. They're hoping the autopsy results will help explain what happened.

Back home all Saunders' friends can think about is the legacy he leaves behind. He was extremely active in the Sports Car Club Of America, winning 12 SCCA Solo National Championships.

"People know him by basically what he wears. Racing is always something real bright. Bright colors," said Piper.

Piper says Rachel is continuing her father's legacy, showing interest in sports car racing.

"She's going to college in Kansas, University of Kansas. She's wanting to get into the SAE program, which is building race cars, go figure," said Piper.

Rachel and her friends were asleep when Saunders fell. Police have ruled out foul play, alcohol and drug use.