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Rescue worker offers her account of Earnhardt aftermath
By Mike Fish, CNNSI.com
For nearly three months, Patti Dobler, a 37-year-old single mother of two children, was the mystery rescue worker who crawled into Dale Earnhardt's mangled race car after a fatal last-lap crash Feb. 18 during the Daytona 500. And, according to NASCAR, Dobler was the person best positioned to tell if his seat belt broke.
Meanwhile, CNNSI.com has learned that top NASCAR management officials from across the country are scheduled to gather Wednesday in Daytona, Fla., where the direction and handling of the Earnhardt probe looms as a key topic of discussion. There has already been grumbling within the corporate sponsorship community about NASCAR's perceived missteps.
So, what's the story? Is NASCAR's stance that the belt failed on solid ground? Dobler isn't sure, though she lends a bit of credence to fellow paramedic, Tommy Propst, who insists Earnhardt's five-point safety harness was intact after his car shot into the concrete wall. "I don't doubt him," Dobler says of Propst's contention.
Reached on her cell phone at Daytona International Speedway, where she works about six days a month as an emergency medical technician, Dobler said she was called a week after the accident by an investigator for NASCAR, who didn't make a major issue of the seat belt.
"One of the questions was, 'Were the seat belts loose or tight?' But he never asked me if it was intact or if it was cut," says Dobler. "That was never an issue, not when I talked to him. And that was the only time I talked to him."
Propst says investigators never contacted him.
Propst, an Orange County, Fla., firefighter has been a thorn for NASCAR in recent days, popping up on at least a dozen TV news shows since his account was reported by the Orlando Sentinel. Propst insists Earnhardt's lap belt was not broken when he reached inside the car to free it.
NASCAR's response has been that Dobler had the better view, having crawled into the opposite window and positioned herself at Earnhardt's right side.
And on Tuesday, NASCAR's campaign received a much needed boost when Dale Earnhardt Jr. stood by its assertion that the belts failed. "I'm not discarding anyone's statement as fiction," says Earnhardt Jr., "but there are always going to be two sides. I believe the belt broke."
Dobler, a regional sales manager for an Internet company, has "an opinion" -- but she's not offering it for fear it'll be taken as fact.
Dobler wonders how she landed in this mess, anyway.
It was only a race-day shuffle that saw her join Propst and his regular partner, Jason Brown, on the EMT unit positioned above turn 4. Now, she's being pulled by Propst to back his story and pondering the idea that, "I don't want to get into a battle with NASCAR, either."
But does what Propst has put forward make sense?
"He's a pretty down to earth and honest man," says Dobler. "So, I don't doubt what he says he saw. [But] it would be hard to see from outside the driver's window unless he was looking down in there. ... Hey, he could have been looking there.
"My first concern was my safety and the safety of the crew ... to shut down the engine and make sure there was no fire and to attend to Dale Earnhardt. I wasn't in there looking to inspect the seat belt. All this came up afterwards."
The faulty seat belt has been NASCAR's core theory, however, since either the night of the accident or the next morning, depending on which official is to be believed.
Officials kept the seat belt out of the public spotlight until a news conference five days after the crash during which a Speedway doctor suggested that the failure could have contributed to the head injures that killed Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion.
That idea was contradicted by independent biomedical expert, Dr. Barry Myers of Duke University. After studying autopsy photos, Myers surmised Earnhardt died when his head whipped violently forward during the collision. Similar basal skull fractures have been linked recently to several other deaths in NASCAR, opening officials to criticism for not mandating the use of a head-and-neck restraint device.
At the same time, officials must deal with Bill Simpson, head of the company that made Earnhardt's seat belts, who reportedly will ask that a statement be issued clearing his company in a meeting Thursday with NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. and president Mike Helton.
Helton has declined to discuss the investigation, saying he'll only address it when the review is completed late this summer.
The NASCAR president, however, called Dobler on Sunday to apologize for any undue attention incurred since her role in the Earnhardt investigation surfaced recently. Dobler refutes assertions that NASCAR had a "gag order on me," saying it was her prerogative to remain on the sidelines.
After working Tuesday at the Daytona International Speedway, which is currently site of the Richard Petty Driving School, Dobler offered CNNSI.com her most detailed account yet of what transpired in the frantic minutes after she and two other emergency medical technicians reached Earnhardt and his black No. 3 Chevrolet.
"I climbed in through the passenger window," says Dobler, who has worked part-time four years at the Daytona. "When I got in the car, the engine was still running so I flipped the toggle switch to shut the engine off and reached across Mr. Earnhardt and swiped the panel, turned off all the toggle switches and then pulled his head back. By this time, Jason [Brown] was trying to ventilate him. Tommy had called for 99, which is the doctor, the transport truck and for the tool truck. [Earnhardt] was unconscious.
"I pulled his head back, went for a pulse. There was no pulse. The doctor had just shown up ... I was holding [Earnhardt's] head back with one hand, so with other hand I reached down to do the buckle on the seat belt. I had my left hand on his forehead holding his head up, and trying to work with my right hand. I went to undo the buckle. The straps were loose. So, I was trying to undo the buckle and it was moving around it.
"Tommy helped me out. He reached in through driver's side window and undid the buckle and we pulled the straps off of him. Then, I went to get the steering wheel off. He had the old style steering wheel, which nobody uses anymore -- has the pin in the side. ... Tommy again helped me out there, reaching in to pull the pin out and then handed me the steering wheel. That was about it. By this time, you had guys on there extricating him, cutting the roof off."
It was over.
"There was no pulse," remembers Dobler. "He wasn't breathing. ... We knew, as professionals, that he was dead."
Dobler remembers the steering wheel being "bent off to the right," and it being obvious that that was what Earnhardt hit. And hit hard.
And the infamous seat belts? She recalls them being loose.
"They weren’t tight," she says. "But as far as being intact or cut, it was on the driver's side and I would have had to lean all the way over to see. If you get into a racecar like that, where they're saying [the belt] was broken is way down on the [left] side of the seat. I couldn't see that."
Another theory put forward is that one of the paramedics might have cut the belt in the rush to free Earnhardt, but Dobler inquired about that herself and found it not to be true.
"When I was in the car, I saw Jason pull out the scissors," she says. "At this point, they were cutting the top of the car. So, Tommy is telling me, 'Get down, put your head down.' So, I saw the scissors come out and then I put my head down.
"Now, I worked with Jason a couple weeks after the wreck. I asked him, 'Did you cut the seat belt?' Because this is when the controversy had started. He said, 'No.' And he couldn't have. After the roof came off, then we pulled the helmet off. The strap is undone on his helmet. He was going to cut that. He wouldn't have cut the seat belts, because the seat belt was already off at this point."