When their plane skidded off a runway and crashed in Tennessee on Thursday afternoon, retired NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., his wife, Amy, and their 1-year-old daughter, Isla Rose, escaped the aircraft before flames engulfed the cabin, officials said.
“They were extremely lucky,” Elizabethton Fire Chief Barry Carrier said at a news conference streamed on WCYB, the NBC affiliate in Bristol, Tenn. “It looks like everything worked in their favor, instead of against them.”
They referred questions about Earnhardt’s condition to his representatives but said he had been taken to the hospital “non-emergency.”
Earnhardt was scheduled to work as an NBC sports analyst this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, but NBC announced late Thursday he would “take the weekend off from broadcasting” because of the crash, according to the Associated Press.
Officials credited the quick response by area EMS and firefighters for helping the passengers and mitigating any potential environmental problems with fuel runoff.
“Under the circumstances, we are extremely blessed and fortunate,” Carter County Sheriff Dexter Lunsford said at the news conference.
Carrier said the plane was burning when the passengers escaped and that firefighters saw flames coming from where the family had just been sitting.
“There’s a door near the front, the nose (of the plane),” Carrier told reporters about the condition of the plane after flames had been extinguished. “Beyond that, it’s pretty much destroyed.”
By 6:45 p.m., WCYB reported that Earnhardt Jr. left Johnson City Medical Center by police escort. He was the only person aboard the plane who was taken to the hospital, according to ABC News.
“Everyone is safe and has been taken to the hospital for further evaluation,” Earnhardt’s sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller tweeted about 4:45 p.m.
The family’s dog, Gus, also was on board and was not harmed, according to the sheriff.
The National Transportation Safety Board said in a tweet that it is sending two representatives to Elizabethton to investigate the “runway excursion accident.”
Elizabethton is 14 miles south of Bristol Motor Speedway, where Earnhardt was scheduled to work this weekend as part of NBC’s broadcast team.
In a statement Thursday night, a spokesperson for NBC Sports said: “We’re incredibly grateful that Dale, his wife Amy, daughter Isla, and the two pilots are safe following today’s accident.
“After being discharged from the hospital, we communicated with Dale and his team, and we’re all in agreement that he should take this weekend off to be with his family,” according to the statement. “We look forward to having him back in the booth next month at Darlington.”
Videos posted on Twitter showed the plane’s fuselage cracked in two and a combination of flames and black smoke billowing from the opening. Photos taken later showed the plane was almost fully engulfed in flames.
The busy Highway 91 near the airport was closed to traffic as the plane sat burning, the Bristol Herald Courier reported.
In the evening press conference, Lunsford, the sheriff, said the road it heavily traveled, particularly at the time of the accident.
“The fact that no one was injured, we’re extremely lucky,” he said.
Earnhardt’s plane background
FAA records show the plane is registered to Mooresville-based JR Motorsports, the NASCAR team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Miller.
In a statement to CNN, the Federal Aviation Administration said the Cessna Citation “rolled off the end of Runway 24 and caught fire after landing at Elizabethton Municipal Airport in Tennessee at 3:40 p.m. today. Preliminary indication is that three people were aboard, they evacuated and no injuries were reported to the FAA.
“The FAA will investigate and the National Transportation Safety Board will determine probable cause of the accident,” according to the FAA’s statement.
Just before 6:30 p.m., the NTSB tweeted that it would send two investigators to the scene.
NASCAR aircraft accidents
Earnhardt’s crash is just the latest in a long line of NASCAR aircraft wrecks.
Several famous drivers, including Hall of Famers Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison, died in plane crashes in the 1990s.
Kulwicki was killed when his plane wrecked in April 1993, also en route to Bristol Motor Speedway. Two months later, Allison attempted to land his helicopter in the infield of Talladega Superspeedway before it went nose up and crashed. Allison did not survive the injuries he sustained.
In 2004, several Hendrick Motorsports officials perished when a team plane hit a mountain near Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. That wreck killed team owner Rick Hendrick’s brother and son, as well as the team’s general manager.
Roush Fenway Racing owner Jack Roush has also been involved in two airplane crashes, once in 2002 and later in 2010, but survived both.
Earnhardt Jr.’s career
Earnhardt Jr. transitioned to the broadcast booth in 2018 after 18 full-time seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series, the highest level of stock car racing. There, Earnhardt emerged as not only one of the sport’s most talented drivers, but also its most marketable.
Following the death of his father, Dale Earnhardt, in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt went on to win NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award 15 times. His streak, which ran consecutively from 2003 until his retirement in 2017, fell one short of the record held by Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.
When fellow NASCAR stars Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick left the sport in recent seasons, Earnhardt emerged as the face of NASCAR. He also served as racing’s public voice of sorts, speaking out about social justice issues.
Earnhardt reached that status without ever winning a championship at NASCAR’s highest level. He won 26 races over the course of his career, including the prestigious Daytona 500 twice.
Earnhardt retired from full-time Cup Series racing in 2017 because of concerns about previous head injuries and because he wanted to start a family. Earnhardt remains active in the sport as a race analyst for NBC.
McClatchy Newsgroup reporters Hayley Fowler and Mark Price contributed.