ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. — The plane carrying NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family bounced multiple times during a crash landing and veered off the runway before ending up on a Tennessee highway, investigators said Friday.
"It’s just the grace of the good Lord that a vehicle didn’t get struck by the plane," Elizabethton Police Chief Jason Shaw said at a news conference. "It’s a very heavily trafficked roadway."
Earnhardt’s sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, said in a statement that all five people aboard the plane Thursday are "doing well." Earnhardt, now a NASCAR television analyst, was taken to hospital for evaluation Thursday and discharged that day.
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Ralph Hicks said the Cessna Citation Latitude had left Statesville, North Carolina, about 20 minutes before the crash at 3:40 p.m. Earnhardt was with wife Amy, 15-month-old daughter Isla, two pilots and a dog.
Hicks said investigators have obtained video footage.
"The airplane basically bounced at least twice before coming down hard on the right main landing gear," he said. "You can actually see the right main landing gear collapsing on the video. The airplane continued down the runway, off to the end, through a fence and came to a stop behind me here on Highway 91."
Federal Aviation Administration officials had said the plane caught fire after landing. Hicks said everyone aboard was able to evacuate through aircraft doors.
"As bad as this accident was, there’s a lot of good things that happened," Elizabethton Mayor Curt Alexander said. "One being that everyone walked away. The second being at 3:40 in the afternoon, after school had just let out a couple of miles up the road, there were no cars involved in this accident."
Hicks said investigators have spoken with the Earnhardt family and the two pilots, all giving accounts consistent with what was seen on video. Hicks expects investigators to release a preliminary report in about seven days that will provide basic facts but no conclusions about the cause. He said the cockpit voice recorder will be sent to the NTSB’s Washington headquarters.
Earnhardt’s sister said the family is assisting FAA and NTSB officials.
"We want to reiterate our appreciation to the NASCAR community, first responders, medical staff, and race fans everywhere for the overwhelming support in the last 24 hours," she said.
Earnhardt retired as a full-time racer in 2017. He was to have been part of NBC’s broadcast team for Saturday night’s Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway. He is now taking the weekend off to be with his family.