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Track Rescue in the Media

Tracks' Fire, Medic Response Often Lacking

In 18 cases, including 15 deaths, victims and families say rescue
wasn't adequate

By DIANE SUCHETKA

On Aug. 12, 2000, two laps into a 150-lap stock car race outside Tacoma,
Wash., driver Mike Easley slammed on his brakes to avoid a two-car
wreck. A third car crashed next to Easley. A fourth slammed into the
third and crushed metal and fuel exploded into a three-story ball of fire
throwing burning gasoline onto Easley.

The driver burst into flames.

The first person to come to his rescue was a photographer who told
reporters that Easley's helmet had melted into his face, that he could
see the driver's eyes through the fire, that he could hear him scream:
"Please save my life. Save my life."

No firetruck was at the race. And news accounts described drivers
pulling extinguishers from their cars and fans throwing water bottles
and ice chests onto the track to help.

The accident put Easley in the hospital for more than a month with
third-degree burns over 42 percent of his body. But he survived.

His case is one of at least 15 deaths and three serious injuries in which
victims or their families claim emergency response was inadequate,
The Observer has found.

Those who were injured, as well as their families and safety experts
told The Observer of tracks that have staged races with no tools to cut
drivers free, no trained rescue workers, no firetrucks, no ambulances

Track owner Dan Pikron says he had an ambulance, two firefighters and
37 extinguishers - and every one of them was used - the night Easley
burned. The company that insures him required no firetruck, he says.

"There's nobody governing what racetracks have to have or racetracks
don't have to have," Pikron says. "Maybe there should be."

Emergency response administered quickly by well-trained and
properly equipped workers is critical to saving lives and reducing
injuries.

"There is definitely a golden hour, where it is very important that a
person who is severely injured, particularly with an internal injury, get
to a trauma center," says Dr. Kathleen Clem, a spokeswoman for the
American College of Emergency Physicians. . "Some very critical
procedures need to be done right away."

The National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Mass., agrees
something should be done to reduce the risk of death and injury in
racing. It is one of at least two organizations writing safety and rescue
recommendations for tracks.

"The typical track owner is not a safety person," says the association's
Carl Peterson. "Not that they're ignoring safety, it's just not high on the
list of things they're thinking about."

Most of the tracks that the injured and their families said were lacking
in equipment were small. And smaller tracks, experts say, often have
less money coming in and less to spend on safety.

"Often there's not even an ambulance on site," says Chief Craig Clarke,
founder of TRACK RESCUE Fire Department Motorsports Safety Team, a

private company that supplies emergency equipment and workers to

tracks throughout the Eastern United States.

Insurance companies generally insist on ambulances and trained
rescuers at races, but not firetrucks, says Jeff Pozmantier, president of
Wisenberg Insurance + Risk Management, which insures more than 150
tracks.

"Ultimately the racer needs to decide if he or she is comfortable
competing at a track," Pozmantier says, "and spectators need to decide
if they are comfortable attending."

The amount tracks spend on safety varies from free admission for
firefighters who agree to help, to $250 for an ambulance, to hundreds of
thousands of dollars for sophisticated mini-hospitals.

About 300 firefighters, paramedics and other emergency workers
staffed each of the big races at Lowe's Motor Speedway last month.
Among the physicians at the track were four - each with a different
medical specialty - who manned the infield-care center, a fully
equipped emergency room run by Carolinas Medical Center. Also ready
to help were 30 ambulances, 15 firetrucks and 500 extinguishers.

The cost of emergency services at Lowe's Motor Speedway exceeds $1
million annually, track officials say.

Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc., which runs one of the nation's
two prominent Indy car leagues, requires all 20 tracks that host its
races every year to meet five pages of safety requirements. All tracks,
no matter their size, must have a licensed physician who serves as
medical director and a helicopter if the closest trauma hospital is more
than 10 minutes away.

"All of these things have evolved because there were problems in the
past," says Dr. Stephen Olvey, CART's director of medical affairs, who
helped implement the standards in the 1980s. "You have to keep these
tracks honest."

Before CART instituted the regulations, Olvey says, one track had a
retired OB/gyn as a medical director. Another had a dentist.

Many complaints from families center on the lack of firetrucks. While
every situation is different, a vehicle with at least 100 gallons of water
and 150 pounds of chemical fire-fighting material, is generally the best
minimum defense against a large fuel fire. But, experts say, the truck
should be one part of an overall fire protection plan.

There was no firetruck at Enid Motor Speedway in Oklahoma on Aug. 28,
1999, the night Delmar "Junior" Riggins' car was hit from behind. His fuel
tank cracked and burst into flames.

More than three-fourths of Riggins' body was burned. Four days later,
he died. Martin Bond, who managed the track then, says he had fire
extinguishers and an ambulance.

"It's an accident that happened and it happens every night in the
country and it'll keep happening," says Bond. "If you have 19 firetrucks,
it'll keep happening."

Sprint-car legend Doug Wolfgang was driving in a practice session at
Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., April 3, 1992, when his car hit a
tire at the edge of the track, and he crashed into a concrete wall.

Wolfgang sat in his car, unconscious, as methanol fuel pooled at his
feet, then ignited. Two firefighters - not the track's usual five to seven -
struggled to extinguish the blaze.

No firetruck was on the scene. And, according to a lawsuit Wolfgang
filed, the firefighters had only pry bars to extricate him, instead of a
more sophisticated tool such as Jaws of Life.

Fellow drivers freed Wolfgang from his car. But not before he burned for
more than eight minutes.

In a rare situation for racing, a jury found the conduct of the track and
the sanctioning body, World of Outlaws, wanton and reckless. A judge
ordered them to pay Wolfgang $1.2 million.

The verdict, Wolfgang says, shows that what happened to him was
wrong. "What it didn't do was force anybody to actually do anything."

There are things that can be done to improve emergency response at
tracks, safety experts say. Those include establishing and enforcing
national standards, hiring only trained firefighters and medical
workers and requiring racers to wear safety gear.

"I am living proof that if you have good safety equipment, you can
survive," says Easley, who wore a triple-layer fire suit.

But someone, he says, ought to require tracks to provide decent
medical and rescue care too.

"Even horse tracks are regulated," Easley says. "They have to have a
veterinarian or they can't race."

 

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