Children were among closest witnesses to Earnhardt fire

John Thompson • Aug 17, 2019 at 10:36 PM

ELIZABETHTON — When a jet crashed after landing Thursday afternoon, reports noted the site was just across a road from an industrial park.

What many people might have forgotten was that industrial park is the home of the TLC Community Center, where 31 people were still gathered, including children and parents in a gymnastics class.

Angie Odom, the center’s director, was in her office at the time of the crash; her first thought was that something happened with a tanker at a nearby convenience store.

She looked out the center’s back door and saw a huge column of smoke. And it was much closer than the gas station.

“The smoke was so thick I couldn’t see the plane, so I still didn’t know what had happened,” Odom said.

She knew the airport stored fuel on the premises, so she worried a fuel tank might be on fire. She also knew that there were natural gas lines running through the area and onto her property, so she was worried about the natural gas catching fire.

She warned Christi Walsh and the children and parents there for her gymnastics class; she told them about the smoke and fire, but that was all she knew at the time, since she had not seen the burning plane less than a quarter mile from the building.

Odom said she then started wondering about whether to evacuate or stay inside the building.

One thing she worried about was that first responders might not realize there were small children located in what is essentially an industrial park. There are other educational institutions in the industrial park, including the campus of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Eliabethton, but her facility was the only one that housed small children.

She called the Elizabethton fire marshal to make sure he was aware that children were in the building at the time and asked if it would be better to stay inside or to evacuate.

They would stay put for the time being, which was long enough to form a prayer ring and ask God to be with those who had been in the crash and with the firefighters and other first responders.

Odom was relieved to see the firefighters gain control of the fire at the crash site. She was quite a bit more worried when she saw that areas saturated by jet fuel that had been extinguished reignited.

The flames even spread across the five-lane highway onto her side of the highway, but were quickly extinguished without coming near the TLC Community Center.