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Saturday, April 28
Rescuer's account raises questions
Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt's seatbelt was intact after his fatal Daytona 500 crash, according to one of the first rescuers on the scene, who said he had problems unbuckling it.

The emergency medical technician's recollection contradicts NASCAR's claim that the belt was broken in the crash.

Tommy Propst, an Orange County firefighter and emergency medical technician who was one of the first on the scene after the accident, said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel that he struggled to pull open the seatbelt buckle before finally releasing it.

NASCAR claims that Earnhardt's left lap belt broke when his No. 3 Chevrolet crashed into the track wall in the final lap of the Feb. 18 race.

"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," Propst said. "If it would have been broke, the whole thing would have come open because I was jerking. ... It was in one piece at the time."

Propst, a 24-year veteran of the Orange County Fire Rescue, said no one from NASCAR has yet questioned him about what he found when he reached Earnhardt's car less than a minute after the 4:39 p.m. crash.

"If they're doing this big investigation and they wanted to know the truth, why wouldn't they interview the one that took the seatbelt off?" he said in the interview, published Sunday.

Efforts by The Associated Press to reach Propst were unsuccessful. A telephone operator said Propst's number was unlisted and unpublished.

Winston Cup director Gary Nelson disagreed with Propst's account.

Nelson said that to his knowledge, the only person in the car was a female rescue worker. A male rescue worker was kneeling and leaning in the other window, he said.

"When the woman tried to unhook his belts, she said she didn't find the buckle in the usual place," Nelson told The Associated Press Sunday. "They searched for it and found it wedged over at one side. They said the buckle was out of place and the belt seemed loose."

NASCAR has refused to display the seatbelt and is conducting its own investigation by unidentified experts expected to continue throughout the summer. NASCAR officials have not said whether the details of the investigation will be made public.

"I don't know of anybody that does a big investigation and tells the world their conclusions on a daily basis until the investigation is concluded," NASCAR Chairman Bill France told the AP.

Earnhardt's autopsy found that the base of his skull was cracked, causing massive internal injuries and resulting in an almost instant death from the impact of the crash.

Similar injuries caused the deaths of three other drivers last year, causing some to question whether NASCAR should require drivers to wear safety devices that restrain the head and neck and keep them from being jolted forward.

At a news conference a week after the fatal crash, NASCAR officials said the seven-time Winston Cup champion's seatbelt was broken.

Steve Bohannon, an emergency-room doctors who worked on Earnhardt after the crash, said he thought the faulty belt allowed Earnhardt's head to strike the steering wheel of his Chevrolet.

However, a court-appointed medical examiner who studied Earnhardt's autopsy photos said that "restraint failure does not appear to have played a role" in the death. That finding by Dr. Barry Myers of Duke University had been hailed by Bill Simpson, founder and chairman of Simpson Performance Products, which made Earnhardt's belt.

Simpson was unavailable for immediate comment on the latest report. A phone message left at his office was not returned.

Propst said he and partner Jason Brown expected to find Earnhardt uninjured but instead found him motionless in his seat, his head on his chest and his right hand and arm on a spoke of the steering wheel. The wheel also was bent to the right.

Earnhardt's goggles were torn from his face and his shoulder belts were stretched about four inches, Propst said, but he noted that Earnhardt may have loosened the straps during the race.

"Jason raised his head up. He had those cold, steel eyes," Propst said. "We actually looked at each other and, you know, we knew right then that he was dead."

Propst said the first thing the pair tried to do was remove Earnhardt's helmet.

Brown bent his scissors trying unsuccessfully to cut the chin strap. He then undid the chin strap by hand so he could open Earnhardt's mouth to force air into his lungs, Propst said.

Patti Dobler, another rescuer, tried to remove Earnhardt's seat belt, also unsuccessfully, Propst said.

Propst said he leaned into the car, reaching across Earnhardt's body for the Velcro tab over the seat-belt buckle latch, which was wedged against Earnhardt's body.

Propst said he did not see any cuts or tears on the seatbelt.

A spokesman for Earnhardt's widow said she was following the NASCAR investigation but did not comment about the discrepancies in the seatbelt reports.

"It seems that this is in NASCAR's realm, not in Mrs. Earnhardt's realm," Peter Himler told The Associated Press Sunday.

Himler said Teresa Earnhardt's primary concern was keeping the autopsy photos private.

Florida lawmakers passed a law following a court fight over access to the Earnhardt autopsy photos making it a felony for the photos to be made public without a court's permission.

"She's interested in the developments of the case and following the investigation that NASCAR's undertaken, but the question of what NASCAR said or did following the accident is NASCAR's domain," Himler said.

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