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UPDATE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. OK after plane crashes, burns at Elizabethton airport

Johnson City Press • Updated Aug 15, 2019 at 7:35 PM

ELIZABETHTON — A typical race week for Dale Earnhart Jr. and his family turned frightening when their Cessna Citation Latitude rolled off the end of Runway 24 and caught fire after landing at Elizabethton Municipal Airport on Thursday.

There were no serious injuries reported, but retired NASCAR driver Earnhardt was taken to a hospital for evaluation.

Authorities said Earnhardt, his wife, Amy, their daughter, Isla, a pilot and copilot and the family dog had already gotten out of the plane before emergency workers arrived.

The airplane rolled off the runway, through a fence and came to rest, with debris causing Tenn. Highway 91 to be shut down.

Airport Manager Dan Cogan said it was fortunate the plane did not hit a drainage ditch at that location: If it had, it could have tipped the plane over and the plane would have landed on its top, with likely fatalities, he said.

Elizabethton Fire Chief Barry Carrier also said the family was fortunate in the way the perimeter fence wrapped itself around the plane after the jet crashed through it. He said the wire did not wrap around the front exit, allowing the family a quick escape.

He said the plane was already on fire.

The Carter County Sheriff’s Department said the first alert went out at 3:38 p.m. The Elizabethton Police Department, Elizabethton Fire Department, Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Carter County Rescue Squad also responded.

Tenn. Highway 91 was shut down, with a short detour through the Watauga Industrial Park for local traffic until the road is reopened. TDOT will check the areas under the road where jet fuel burned to make sure there is no structural damage before reopening the road later Friday.

Authorities said fuel leaking from the wreckage leaked into a ditch and nearby storm drain. Carrier said emergency crews were able to stop the fuel before it got into a pond in front of the Workforce Development Complex or went through the storm drain to the Watauga River.

Earnhardt retired as a full-time racer in 2017 and has been working as an analyst for NBC. He was part of the scheduled broadcast team for Saturday night's Cup Series event in Bristol but The Associated Press reported that Earnhardt will take the weekend off.

Reactions from the racing world were swift.

NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell said “With Dale and Amy, I’m glad to hear the good news that everyone is OK,” Bell said Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Hopefully, we will continue to hear good news.

After seeing the video,Bell said “It’s very eye-opening.

“Everybody in this sport flies on planes every single week. We definitely take for granted our safety on that, at least I do. I need to be more thankful for that.”

“We were relieved to read Kelley Earnhardt’s tweet that Dale and his family and the pilots are safe,” said Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway.

Kelley Earnhardt is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s sister.

“We fully support NBC’s decision to encourage him to take this weekend off to be with his family,” Caldwell continued. “On behalf of everyone at Bristol Motor Speedway, our thoughts and prayers are with him, his wife Amy and daughter Isla as they move forward from this incident.”

Earnhardt was a third-generation driver, was a two-time winner of the Daytona 500 and the 2004 winner of the Bristol Night Race. Over a 19-year Cup Series career, Earnhardt competed in 631 races with 26 wins. Before the Cup Series, Earnhardt won back-to-back NASCAR Busch Series (now Xfinity Series) championships in 1998 and 1999.

He also won NASCAR's most popular driver award a record 15 times.

With many NASCAR participants traveling across the country to weekly races, Earnhardt is not the first to experience a plane crash leading up to a race.

Defending NASCAR champion Alan Kulwicki was killed in an air crash off Island Road in Blountville on April 1, 1993. Kulwicki, two other passengers and the pilot were traveling from a promotional appearance in Knoxville to compete in that weekend’s Food City 500 where Kulwicki was the defending race champion.

An investigation into the accident said the probable cause was the failure of the pilot to follow procedures concerning use of the engine inlet anti-ice system.

In 2004, a plane owned by Hendrick Motorsports crashed into Bull Mountain near Stuart, Virginia.

All 10 people, including team owner Rick Hendrick’s son, Ricky, and John Hendrick, president of Hendrick Motorsports, were killed. Thick fog was listed as a major cause of the accident.

The Associated Press reported Earnhardt was part of Rick Hendrick's racing team in 2011 when Hendrick broke a rib and a collarbone while on a small jet that lost its brakes and crash landed in an airport at Key West, Florida.

Johnson City Press sports reporter Jeff Birchfield assisted with this story.\

Earlier:

ELIZABETHTON — Retired NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and family were taken to the Johnson City Medical Center Thursday afternoon after the plane he was flying in crashed near the Elizabethton Municipal Airport.

According to Carter County authorities, all of the passengers escaped the plane, including Earnhardt’s wife, Amy, their daughter, Isla, and the family’s dog.

State Route 91, which passes by the airport is shut down, and the airport is closed. The plane landed on the side of the highway after leaving the runway.

Elizabethton Police Chief Jason Shaw said a portion of the road will be shut down overnight. He said the two lanes furthest from the airport would be open to local traffic. Shaw said a detour would also be set up through the Watauga Indutrial Park.

He said the Tennessee Department of Transportation will look at the underside of the roadway to make sure there was no structural damage caused by burning fuel, nor any pooling of aviation fuel under the highway.

Authorities said fuel leaking from the wreckage leaked into a nearby storm drain, and emergency crews were trying to stop it from reaching nearby waterways.

The airport will likely be closed for at least four hours while the fuel spill is cleaned up. Traffic will be rerouted around the danger area.

Earnhardt’s sister, Kelley, tweeted about the crash:

“I can confirm Dale, Amy & Isla along with his two pilots were involved in a crash in Bristol TN this afternoon. Everyone is safe and has been taken to the hospital for further evaluation. We have no further information at this time. Thank you for your understanding.”

Federal Aviation Administration officials said the Cessna Citation rolled off the end of a runway and caught fire after landing at Elizabethton Municipal Airport at 3:40 p.m. Thursday. FAA officials said the preliminary indication is that two pilots and three passengers were aboard.

Carter County Sheriff's Office spokesman Thomas Gray confirmed Earnhardt was aboard but said he wasn't one of the pilots.

Earnhardt retired as a full-time racer in 2017 and has been working as an analyst for NBC. He is part of the scheduled broadcast team for Saturday night's Cup Series event in Bristol.

Check back here later for more information on this developing story.

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