YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Rescuer: Seat Belt Wasn't Broken

Auto racing: Firefighter's account raises questions about NASCAR's investigation of Earnhardt's fatal crash.


ORLANDO, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt's seat belt did not break during his fatal crash at the Daytona 500, according to one of the first rescuers to come to his aid.

Tommy Propst of Orlando, a veteran firefighter and emergency medical technician, said he found the NASCAR legend strapped inside his crumpled car in the infield of the Daytona International Speedway and that the seat belt was tight enough that he had to pull on the buckle repeatedly before it popped open.

"Somebody hollered, 'I'll cut it.' I said, 'No, let me try it.' I reached over, pulled, and I had to really jerk. I pulled hard, and that's when it come open. If it would have been broke, the whole thing would have come open. . . . It was in one piece at the time."

Propst's account breaks two months of silence by those who tried to save Earnhardt. It also raises questions about NASCAR's crash investigation and the racing organization's claim that Earnhardt's left lap belt broke when his No. 3 Chevrolet hit the wall during the final lap of the race Feb. 18.

But, Propst said, he has never been questioned by anyone from NASCAR.

"If they're doing this big investigation and they wanted to know the truth, why wouldn't they interview the one that took the seat belt off?" he asked.

NASCAR officials Saturday refused to respond to Propst's statements. Questioned at the California Speedway, site of today's NAPA Auto Parts 500, NASCAR President Mike Helton said he had no comment.

NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr. angrily accused the Sentinel of not being interested in hearing NASCAR's side of the story.

'I'm not going to talk to you about any of that stuff," France added. " . . . we've got a lot more to do than mess with that damn . . . ."

NASCAR has not shown Earnhardt's seat belt publicly. It says the crash is being investigated by world-class experts it has not identified. The findings are not expected before August--and NASCAR has said it may not disclose details of the investigation.

Speedway videotapes and other rescuers identify Propst, 49, as one of the most active members of the Earnhardt rescue team. A certified EMT and firefighter for 24 years, he was working at the Speedway on an ambulance stationed just a few hundred feet from the crash.

His eyewitness account, volunteered after weeks of indecision and pained discussions with his fellow firefighters, adds significantly to an already heated controversy over how NASCAR's most popular driver died.

An autopsy of the seven-time Winston Cup champion found that the impact of the crash cracked the base of his skull and caused massive internal head injuries. He died almost instantly.

Before the Daytona tragedy, three other drivers had died of similar injuries in the previous year, raising questions about whether NASCAR should join other racing organizations in requiring drivers to wear new devices that keep the head and neck from being thrown violently forward.

Five days after the crash, NASCAR officials introduced a new element: a broken lap belt. The belt was part of a five-point harness of three-inch nylon webbing--consisting of two shoulder belts, two lap belts and a crotch strap--held together by a single latch.

Bill Simpson, whose Simpson Performance Products made the belt assembly used by Earnhardt and by most NASCAR drivers, says the system has never failed in a Winston Cup car.

Gary Nelson, head of NASCAR's Winston Cup racing, told reporters on Feb. 23 in Rockingham, N.C.:

"What we found in the accident investigation was that this left side [lap belt] had separated, even though it was buckled. When the safety crew got to him, this part here"--Nelson then held up an intact lap belt--"was not connected to the roll cage anymore. There was a separation right in this area--it became two pieces."

The lap belt is anchored to the floor of the car.

Asked if the belt broke at a metal fitting, Nelson said, "It was the webbing. The metal was still intact at each end."

Could rescuers have cut it?

"We're not going to get into any details about the cut, other than we had two pieces," Nelson said. "We talked to the rescue people that were on the scene. We got their statements and that led us to try to understand exactly how something like this could happen. We think it happened during the accident, some time."

At the same news conference, the Speedway's emergency medical services director, Dr. Steve Bohannon of Daytona Beach, theorized that the break contributed to Earnhardt's death. NASCAR and Bohannon have backed off that analysis, however, since a court-appointed crash researcher from Duke University concluded that Earnhardt's head would have whipped violently forward--causing the basilar skull fracture--regardless of whether the belt held or broke during the crash.

Propst, however, insists the seat belt did not break. Nor, he says, did he see it cut.

Videotapes recorded from Speedway cameras and Fox Sports show rescue workers, among them Propst and his partner, Jason Brown, reached Earnhardt's car less than 30 seconds after the crash.

Los Angeles Times Articles