Here’s the worst-case scenario that any racer could imagine. Driver Shane Mitchell’s car got airborne in a crash at the Wenatchee Valley Super Oval, landed on the wall and caught fire as it came to a stop. Mitchell suffered a back injury in the accident, so he was stuck there until a rescue worker pulled him out.
It takes a while for responders to get there, but once they do, none of them are wearing protective gear to deal with the whole car-on-fire part of the problem. Fortunately, the responders got to Mitchell quickly and were able to pull him out of the car, but even some of the later responders weren’t wearing anything to protect themselves from the flaming car.
“A rescue worker cannot rescue if they themselves become injured,” wrote DrivenWheels when their write-up of the safety issues in this video.
One poster on the Motorsport Safety Foundation forums wondered why any sort of onboard fire suppression system wasn’t used. I’m not sure if Late Models are required to have them or not [update: they do], however, they can buy precious extra time if you’re ever in this situation. Responders should know where the pull is.
The problems with this accident didn’t end once Mitchell was out of the car. His rescuers kept trying to move him when it was clear that he was in pain, and his back was an issue. As DrivenWheels points out, any possible spinal injuries need to be stabilized. Many first aid programs instruct responders to find a safe place to immobilize the racer’s back as he waits for the ambulance to arrive.
According to DrivenWheels, Mitchell will spend several days in the hospital to recover from the spinal fractures from this accident.
Many tracks make do with what they have, as was shown here. I can’t say I fault anyone who sees a driver stuck in a flaming car and acts immediately to help pull him out, but there’s a reason why many pro races are so strict on gear and training for responders, even if it’s just mandating a simple one-layer firesuit. It’s too easy for a worst-case scenario to become even worse.
UPDATE: I’ve received quite a lot of feedback on this that there’s more to this story than you can see in the video. For one, crews were likely trying to move Mitchell further from the firefighting spray (a foam/fire retardant mix according to one email), and in all fairness, the fire crew got there fairly quickly for a large facility like this.
On the other hand, as someone who’s been caring for a person with a back injury all week, I still have to cringe at how much they had to move him once he was out of the car.
UPDATE #2: There was a lot we didn’t get in this story. Here’s the update with the firefighters’ side of what went on. The first two people to arrive at the scene weren’t responders at all, and everything would have gone a lot smoother had the fire and rescue teams been left to do their jobs.
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