ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. — NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family were not seriously hurt when the plane they were on crashed and caught fire Thursday afternoon at an airport in Tennessee, officials said.
Authorities said the private plane, registered under JR Motorsports in Mooresville, rolled off the end of the runway around 3:40 p.m. after landing at Elizabethton Municipal Airport. The plane had taken off about 20 minutes before the crash from Statesville.
(View of the wreckage from Chopper 9 Skyzoom)
The airport is about 15 miles from Bristol Motor Speedway, where there is a NASCAR race this weekend.
The Carter County Sheriff's Office said Earnhardt, his wife Amy and their 15-month-old daughter Isla were on board, along with two pilots and the family dog.
The 44-year-old television analyst and retired driver was taken to a hospital for evaluation and later released.
(Dale Jr., Isla and Amy)
NBC Sports said Earnhardt was scheduled to work as an analyst for the race but will take the weekend off from broadcasting to be with his wife and daughter.
"We're incredibly grateful that Dale, his wife Amy, daughter Isla, and the two pilots are safe following today's accident," NBC Sports said in a statement. "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. We look forward to having him back in the booth next month at Darlington."
Earnhardt's sister Kelley Earnhardt tweeted after the crash that everyone was safe.
Hours later, Kelley Earnhardt tweeted again, saying, "Finally laying down for the night and want to say thank you to God, the angels among us, our pilots, first responders, medical staff, our NASCAR family and everyone that has reached out in whatever way to support us all."
Friday afternoon, Earnhardt and JR Motorsports said "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. Dale, Amy and Isla and our two pilots are doing well. We are assisting the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board in the Investigation and will have no further comment at this time."
NASCAR officials released a statement saying they are relieved Earnhardt and his family are safe. They also commended the quick response of all the first responders to help the Earnhardt family and the two pilots.
(WATCH BELOW: Chopper 9 Skyzoom flies over the crash scene)
Chopper 9 Skyzoom flew over the scene and only the front of the plane and a wing were left, the rest of the aircraft charred from the flames.
A passerby recorded cellphone video moments after the crash, where plumes of black smoke can be seen rising from the plane, as well as flames.
A local nurse who witnessed the crash told Channel 9 her instincts kicked in when she saw the jet skid off the runway.
"First thing that went through my mind was, 'Lord, I hope there was nobody in the plane that's still in the plane,' because it was completely engulfed," she said.
She said she tried to help.
"As I did that, the plane, it was smoking out the back and then, all of a sudden, it caught on fire," she said. "Coming from the plane, I could see a man carrying a child and a woman and, I thought, a dog."
Officials said they received several 911 calls after the plane crash.
"Elizabethton Airport, a plane ran off the runway. I need you to roll everything you can," the 911 caller told dispatch.
"OK, it's run off the runway," dispatch responded.
"It's on fire! A jet," the 911 caller said.
Federal Aviation Administration officials said the Cessna Citation rolled off the end of a runway and caught fire after landing.
The National Transportation Safety Board said investigators will spend at least two days collecting evidence from the scene of the crash.
Authorities have reviewed surveillance footage from near the crash site. They said it showed the plane bounced at least twice before coming down hard on one of the landing gears.
"You can actually see the right main landing gear collapsing in the video," said Ralph Hicks, a senior investigator with NTSB. "The airplane continued down the runway off to the end, through a fence, and it came to stop on Highway 91."
All four lanes of State Route 91 through Elizabethton near the airport are shut down as crews continue their investigation.
Elizabethton Fire Chief Barry Carrier said the plane wrapped around a fence at the end of the runway and slid to a fiery stop in a grassy area before the Earnhardts, two pilots and the family dog evacuated the crash site.
Channel 9 obtained video showing the plane caught fire while the Earnhardts were still on board.
"The first word to come to my mind is that they were very lucky," Carrier said. "It looks like everything worked in their favor instead of against them."
Officials said Earnhardt had cuts and bruises but was alert and conscious when he was taken to the hospital. He was released a few hours later.
Danny "Chocolate" Myers is a retired NASCAR crewman who served on the pit crew for Earnhardt Jr.'s father. He has watched Earnhardt Jr. grow up on and off the track.
(Dale, Amy and Isla)
Myers said when he saw the news, he was terrified.
"When I saw, it scared me and then, I started to contact people, friends trying to get the rest of the story," Myers said. "Look, Dale Jr. is a kid I got to see grow up in the garage area, and he is a big part of NASCAR. And when we talk about an airplane crash, there is no small airplane crash."
Friday morning, Channel 9 has seen race fans and others coming to the crash site in disbelief over what happened, but they said they are thankful Earnhardt and his family are safe.
"The video I've seen on my phone showed the dog and him and his wife and the pilots running out of it. I'm just saying, it is a miracle," race fan Rick Parlier.
"People can actually walk out of something like that. It's amazing," resident Bobby Loveless said. "God's love is shown through this wreck right here. Amazing."
Earnhardt retired as a full-time driver in 2017 and has been working as an analyst for NBC. He was scheduled to be part of the broadcast team for Saturday night's Cup Series event in Bristol.
The fire marshal said there were about 1,000 gallons of jet fuel on the plane, which caused even more concern.
This incident comes 26 years after former driver and 1992 Cup champion Alan Kulwicki died in a plane crash while on his way to the spring race at Bristol from a promotional appearance in Knoxville, Tennessee. That crash at Tri-City Regional Airport in Blountville, Tennessee, killed a total of four people.
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. Hendrick's son, brother and twin nieces were among 10 people killed in a 2004 crash of a plane traveling to a race in Virginia.
This isn't the first fiery crash for Earnhardt. He still has a burn scar on his neck from a crash at Sonoma in 2004 during warmups for an American Le Mans Series race that left him with second-degree burns.
Earnhardt has a history of concussions that plagued him over his final years as a driver.
He won NASCAR's most popular driver award a record 15 times with 26 career Cup victories, including two Daytona 500s.
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