February 20, 2001|By Amy C. Rippel and Beth Kassab of The Sentinel Staff
DAYTONA BEACH -- Dale Earnhardt died from a severe fracture to the base of his skull that caused bruising and bleeding to the soft tissue in his brain.
When his race car smashed into a concrete wall at an estimated 180 mph Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, it broke eight ribs, his left ankle and his breastbone. There were several scrapes on his body. He had blood in his ears and chest and partially collapsed lungs.
A preliminary autopsy report released Monday evening finds that Earnhardt, 49, died of blunt-force trauma to the head and neck, but the report won't be finalized for several weeks, after blood tests are completed.
Earnhardt was pronounced dead at Halifax Medical Center at 5:16 p.m. Sunday after his car slammed into a concrete wall in the final turn of the Daytona 500. Volusia County spokesman Dave Byron said at a news conference Monday morning that the autopsy showed Earnhardt was killed as soon as he hit the racetrack wall.
"My understanding is that the death was instant," Byron said. "He died at the scene."
The autopsy report shows that the deadly skull fracture circled the base of Earnhardt's skull, extending from the bottom of the skull to the sides. There was a significant amount of internal bleeding at the base of his brain. He had blood in his ears and mild brain swelling from the skull fracture.
Basal skull fractures have killed four race drivers -- Earnhardt, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper -- in the past year and at least 12 of the 15 drivers killed in auto racing since 1991. They are caused by violent head movement in which large blood vessels at the skull's base tear, creating immediate and severe blood loss.
Essentially, it is violent whiplash. With the body held immobile by over-the-shoulder seat belts, only the head can move. Once blood vessels tear, the driver can die in seconds.
Dr. Steve Bohannon, the Daytona Speedway emergency medical director, said Earnhardt was not breathing when he arrived at Halifax Medical Center. He had no pulse from the time the first ambulance crew reached him on the track until he was pronounced dead.
"The attempts were futile," he said. "After about 22 minutes, the physicians involved decided to cease the efforts."
Earnhardt's body was taken to the Medical Examiner's Office for a routine autopsy after he was pronounced dead. His belongings -- a pair of black socks, a racing suit, black gloves, his helmet, underwear and racing boots -- were returned to his wife, Teresa.
Baggett & Summers Funeral Home in Daytona Beach prepared Earnhardt's body before it was taken at 4:15 p.m. Monday to a private hangar at Daytona Beach International Airport. The body was flown to Charlotte, N.C., and then taken to Raymer Funeral Home in Huntersville, N.C., which will be handling funeral arrangements.