Earnhardt autopsy photos not black-and-white issue

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

March 11, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

If Dale Earnhardt had died in Maryland, the photographs from his autopsy would not be available as part of the public record.

"In Maryland, autopsy photos are treated as confidential medical records," said Dr. John E. Smialek, Maryland's chief medical examiner. "Only the autopsy report - the written record - is a public record."

In Maryland, Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, and the rest of his family would be protected from the possibility of further pain from the prospect of those photos "sooner or later ... end[ing] up unprotected and published ... and most certainly on the Internet," as Teresa said during a hastily scheduled news conference in Las Vegas.

But, Earnhardt died in Florida, where autopsy photos are considered part of the public record.

Now, Teresa wants to keep those photos out of the hands of the Orlando Sentinel, which has requested them, and is using all the clout she can to have things her way. The Florida legislature is considering a bill that would keep the photos private and carry a fine and prison penalty for anyone who made them available for publication.

I can see her point, and my heart is on her side.

But, as a journalist, I can see the Sentinel's side too.

The Sentinel says it will not publish the photos. It only wants to have an independent examiner look at them to try to determine whether the basal skull fracture that killed Earnhardt on Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway was caused before or after his chin is said to have struck the steering wheel when his lap belt broke.

There is a valid reason for wanting to know because three other drivers have died from basal skull injuries over the past 10 months, because 90 percent of race car driver deaths have been caused by the same injury and because NASCAR, the sanctioning body of the Winston Cup Series, has appeared to be incredibly slow to take steps toward improving drivers' safety even in the face of the deaths of four of its drivers.

Some businesses in this world take advantage of their workers. In the business of auto racing, it is the drivers - strangely enough, given their macho images - who are among those taken advantage of in terms of safety.

A driver is often his own worst enemy, having grown up with one or two philosophies. He believes "nothing bad is going to happen to me." Or, "if it does, it's part of the risk I knowingly take" to participate in the sport.

If you for even one minute think it is not ingrained, consider this. Two weeks ago at Rockingham three-time champion Jeff Gordon said: "I hope I never get used to dealing with death at the racetrack. But I've been at it a long time. When I was 7 years old and racing quarter-midgets, a friend of mine was killed. Accidents happen. It's like a Little League kid gets hit by a line drive."

But Gordon is one of the smarter ones. He went on to say he still doesn't accept death as part of the business. And I suspect that's why two weeks ago, he was one of the first to suggest having a committee from outside the sport look at the safety issues.

It's also why the Orlando Sentinel continues to pursue the autopsy photos that Teresa Earnhardt so desperately wants to keep private. She's worried about her 12-year-old daughter, Taylor, coming unexpectedly upon a published photo of her dad's autopsy.

What parent wouldn't be worried about that?

But there are others in her family, her stepsons Dale Jr. and Kerry, who are still racing. It is for them and for all the rest who race cars that every possible avenue of information should be pursued in search of safety.

And yet, there are problems with expecting these autopsy photos to shed light. Smialek said the autopsy photos "might or might not" reveal additional information.

"What is contained in the autopsy report is details of what the medical examiner identified as evidence of disease or injuries that contributed to the death," Smialek said. "What a medical examiner does is study the injury pattern. He looks at the total constellation of injury revealed and puts it together with the evidence at the scene."

To determine whether the basal skull fracture that killed Earnhardt occurred before his chin struck the steering wheel or after, Smialek said the investigating medical examiner would need more than autopsy photographs.

"To have those answers, you'd have to put the medical records together with the driver's compartment, the helmet, the harness," he said. "It would all have to be part of the reconstruction. You'd need all those things to put the story together."

And NASCAR certainly isn't likely to provide all those other necessary pieces.

Another first step

Cody Unser, the 14-year-old daughter of Indy Racing League driver Al Unser Jr., continues her fight to help everyone who, like her, suffers from transverse myelitis.

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