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Witness: Jr. Dropped To Ground After Exiting Plane

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 16 2019
The burned-out remains of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s airplane at the airport near Bristol Motor Speedway. (RacinToday.com photo by Deb Williams)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

ELIZABETHTON, TENN.  – Sissy Moody was working across the street from the Elizabethton Municipal Airport Thursday when she heard a loud “thud”, ran to the window and saw Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s jet sliding off the runway, flames and smoke billowing from the Cessna Citation 680.

“As soon as it stopped, the dog comes out, and then I guess it was Dale with the baby, his wife and then the two pilots right behind them,” said Moody, a Milligan, Tenn., resident. “But Dale went on the ground, maybe 30-40 feet from the plane when he came off. They (EMS) were working on him on the ground.”

EMS was only a quarter-mile south of the airport and was on the scene in less than five minutes.

Earnhardt was transported to Johnson City Medical Center and later released. He and his family initially went to their motor coach at Bristol Motor Speedway, but were expected to return to their North Carolina home. A NBC Sports spokesman said Thursday evening that Earnhardt would be given the weekend off and would return to the broadcast booth at Darlington, S.C. 

Earnhardt’s plane was landing when it skidded off the 5,010-foot runway and ripped out about 45 to 50 feet of fence. The burning plane slid to a stop on the edge of Highway 91and was quickly engulfed in flames. The burning jet fuel quickly spread into a drainage ditch the plane had crossed. From there the fuel spread into a culvert that went under the highway and into a pond. It was still burning more than two hours after the 3:38 p.m. crash and the smell of it still filled the air more than three hours after the accident. Authorities said there were 1,000 gallons of fuel on the plane when it crashed. 

“This tunnel (under the highway) was ablaze,” Moody said. “Flames were shooting up maybe 20-30 foot out of that tunnel. The plane was ablaze. You could see the smoke coming off the ground. It was wild. I’m just glad they all made it off (the plane)!”

Elizabethton Fire Chief Barry Carrier described everyone on the plane as “very lucky” and Carter County Sheriff Dexter Lunceford said that under the circumstances they were “extremely blessed and fortunate.”

“One thing that strikes me since I have been looking at the scene a little bit closer is the fact that when it came through the fence, the fence wrapped around the (middle of the) airplane,” Carrier said. “If that had been where the door was it would have been more difficult for them to get the door open. It looks like everything worked in their favor.” 

Carrier said the only parts of the plane that were intact were the nose and the door where everyone escaped. Everything else was destroyed in the fire.

Moody said she was running across the Alliance, Business and Training Center grounds towards the plane when she saw its occupants quickly exit through the front door on the plane’s left side and then run down the road. When Moody and her co-workers heard the plane might explode they ran to their vehicles and moved them from the front parking lot to the back of the building.

Highway 91 at the crash site remained closed Thursday night and wasn’t expected to reopen until NTSB and FAA officials completed their investigation. They were scheduled to arrive at the scene Friday morning. The airport reopened Thursday night. 

Carrier said initially they were concerned about heat under the road from the burning jet fuel. Once they felt everything was safe, they would partially reopen the road.  

Elizabethton Police Chief Jason Shaw said the section of Highway 91 where the wreckage sat would be closed until at least 7 p.m. Friday. He said the Tennessee Department of Transportation was assisting with establishing a detour. 

“We’re concerned with the fire from the fuel that was underneath the roadway. That has to cool,” Shaw said. “That has to be checked environmentally and of course TDOT has to inspect the bridge to make sure the structural integrity is there before traffic can be on there.” 

Lunceford said that highway normally had heavy traffic at the time the crash occurred and they were fortunate there were no vehicles on the roadway.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 16 2019
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