ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. —Retired NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family are lucky to be alive after the jet they were on ran off a runway, crashed and burst into flames Thursday afternoon, officials said.

“Looking at it right now, I don’t see how anybody got out of it alive,” said Carter County Mayor Rusty Barnett. “But we had five people in there, and they’re all out safe.”

County Sheriff Dexter Lunceford agreed, saying the crash could have been “a whole lot worse.”

Lunceford, Elizabethton Fire Chief Barry Carrier and Elizabethton Police Chief Jason Shaw spoke to the media at the Elizabethton Municipal Airport, where Earnhardt’s jet crashed at 3:38 p.m.

“Under the circumstances, we are extremely blessed and fortunate,” Lunceford said.

Earnhardt crash map

This map shows State Route 91 southbound in Carter County near the Elizabethton Municipal Airport where a Cessna Citation crashed on Thursday. 

The sheriff said he suspects something mechanical may have caused the crash.

“He ran off the end of the runway, through a fence and onto Highway 91,” Lunceford said.

The Federal Aviation Administration later said the Cessna Citation rolled off the end of Runway 24 and caught fire after landing at the airport.

“The plane burst into flames and it was burning when we arrived,” Lunceford said.

The sheriff said five occupants, including Earnhardt Jr., 44, his wife, Amy, 37, and 1-year-old daughter, Isla, as well as two pilots, managed to escape from the burning plane. The family’s dog, Gus, also survived.

Firefighters, law enforcement officers and paramedics arrived within two to three minutes, according to Carrier.

“We saw heavy fire coming from the fuselage of the airplane with some of the passengers already outside,” he said.

First-responders made sure no occupants needed to be rescued, but they had already exited and were alert and oriented, he said.

“We started taking care of patients and at the same time put the fire out,” Carrier said.

The firefighters used foam to extinguish the flames, which destroyed much of the fuselage.

Kelley Earnhardt Miller, Earnhardt’s sister and general manager of JR Motorsports, said everyone was safe and taken to the hospital for evaluation.

“We have no further information at this time,” Miller said at 4:42 p.m. on Twitter. “Thank you for your understanding.”

Since retiring from NASCAR, Earnhardt has served as a NBC Sports analyst. Nearly five hours after the crash, an NBC spokesperson said the organization was “incredibly grateful” that the Earnhardts were safe.

“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,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We look forward to having him back in the booth next month at Darlington.”

The crash dumped 1,000 gallons of fuel onto the roadway and into the storm drains. Carrier said the firefighters couldn’t access all of the fuel, but efforts were made to keep fuel from entering the water.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation was expected to arrive on scene.

“It happened right in front of us,” said Elizabethton Airport Manager Dan Cogan. “It slid off the end of the runway.”

The airport immediately ceased operations temporarily.

Cogan said the airplane and at least one of the pilots had been to the airport in the past.

“The pilot is familiar with the airport,” he said.

Although it was a busy part of the day, no vehicles were involved in the crash, Lunceford said.

Two Elizabethton motorists who witnessed the crash contacted the Bristol Herald Courier via Facebook to describe what they saw.

“I just saw a big shadow from the smoke plume show up on the road in front of my car,” wrote Robert Parshall.

He said he turned into a gas station, which is across the four-lane highway from the crash scene, and into the Northeast State Community College campus.

“By the time I parked, the whole back was engulfed,” Parshall wrote. “The hatch was open and people were running away. Then within a just a couple seconds, the whole back was engulfed.”

Ashley Garcia said she was coming though a red light along Route 91 near the airport when she saw the plane land but was then unable to stop. She said when she saw the plane crash she got out of her car to help. All of the people who came off the plane appeared to be OK, but a little scratched up, she added.

The fire chief said he believes everyone on the plane is lucky to be alive. He noticed later that the fencing, which the plane crashed through, had wrapped around the fuselage near the door, he said.

“It would have been a lot more difficult to get the door open,” Carrier said. “It looks like everything worked in their favor.”

The last time a plane crashed at the airport was in 2016.

“It’s something that we try to stay prepared for,” Carrier said. “The airport director here and the personnel at the airport are top notch.”

Traffic is being rerouted around the scene as the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration investigates the crash. Police Chief Jason Shaw asked that motorists avoid the area if possible, but a detour has been set up on Judge Don Lewis Boulevard and Industrial Drive.

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