Danger Under the Hood

A little girl dies; attention turns to a faulty Ford part

More than 500 fires reported in pickups, SUVs; probe centers on cruise-control switch.

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Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News


Tanika Washington mourns at the gravesite of her daughter, Blake, with son Pryce. The Georgia family has sued Ford, claiming a faulty switch in their parked F-150 pickup caused the fatal house fire 18 months ago.

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The fire that gutted the Washingtons' house in northern Georgia claimed a 4-year-old's life.

Recalled vehicles

2000 Ford Expedition

2000 Lincoln Navigator

2000 Ford F-150 truck

2001 Ford F-150 SuperCrew truck

Vehicles under investigation

1995-99, 2001-02 Ford Expedition

1995-99, 2001-02 Lincoln Navigator

1995-99 Ford F-150 pickup

2001-02 Ford F-150 pickup

KENNESAW, Ga. -- The noise woke Tanika Washington just before dawn, a sound like heavy raindrops beating on the roof.

But when she sat up in bed, she realized it was the crackling of fire.

"I think something's burning," she said to her husband, Juan. "I think the house is on fire."

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Blake

And when Juan opened their bedroom door, a wall of fire was on the other side, raging through the hallway of their split-level home. In the minutes that followed, the house in northern Georgia burned to the ground, and four members of the Washington family escaped with their lives.

But Blake Washington, the couple's 4-year-old daughter, died in her bed in the blaze on New Year's Day 2004, the victim of what baffled local investigators said was a fire of undetermined origin.

Nobody suspected that clues may have existed in the smoldering remains of the family's 2001 Ford F-150 pickup until a federal investigation of Ford vehicle fires became public earlier this year.

With millions of Ford pickups and SUVs now under scrutiny for dangerous fires, the Washington case may prove to be a tragic example of the consequences of a hidden automotive defect.

On Friday, the Washington family filed a wrongful death suit in a Georgia state court against Ford Motor Co., alleging that a defective cruise-control deactivation switch in the F-150 caused the fire that killed Blake.

Last month, an Iowa man sued Ford, claiming the death of his 74-year-old wife on May 2 was caused by a fire in their F-150.

Ford said there is no evidence to link either death to its cruise-control systems.

But the suits -- as well as numerous property-damage cases in Texas, Florida, California and elsewhere -- come as Ford and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are conducting wide-ranging probes into reports of more than 500 fires in Ford pickups and sport utility vehicles.

On Jan. 27, Ford announced a recall of 738,000 F-150 pickups, Ford Expeditions and Lincoln Navigators to disconnect cruise-control switches that could cause fires in the engine compartment.

Three months later, NHTSA opened a broader investigation into the switches in 3.7 million Ford pickups and SUVs.

One of those vehicles was in the garage of the Washington family's home when it caught fire in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2004.

Investigators with the Cobb County Department of Public Safety were at a loss for months to explain the origin of the fast-moving fire.

But after learning of the January recall, the investigators have targeted the F-150 -- which has been scrapped and destroyed -- as the possible source of the fire.

"From what we know now about the recall, it certainly could have been the truck," Rod Sanders, Cobb County senior fire investigator, told The Detroit News.

A Ford spokeswoman said that without the F-150, there's no way of knowing whether the switch was responsible. "It is critical to investigate the fire scene before responsibly reaching a conclusion about the cause and origin of the fire," said Kristen Kinley of Ford.

A spokesman for NHTSA said the agency cannot conclusively connect the fatal fire in Georgia to the F-150 since the truck no longer exists. "We've been unable to confirm that fatality was linked to the cruise control," said Rae Tyson of NHTSA.

But the Washington family's attorney said a three-month investigation by fire experts is the basis for the wrongful-death suit against Ford and its suppliers Texas Instruments and DuPont.

"We expect to prove that the physical evidence is consistent with the fire originating in the Ford," said Mark Chalos of the law firm Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein in Nashville, Tenn.

For Blake Washington's parents, the lawsuit is all about getting to the truth behind the tragedy that changed their lives forever.

"We lost a child and nothing's going to bring her back, no amount of money," said Tanika Washington. "I want somebody to give a damn that we lost our baby."

Sedans recalled

In May 1999, Ford announced that it was recalling 262,000 full-size sedans because of a defect in pressurized switches used to turn off cruise-control systems.

The action followed reports of dozens of under-hood fires in Lincoln Town Cars, Ford Crown Victorias and Mercury Grand Marquis.

According to Ford, the cars -- built in 1991 and 1992 -- could experience "a fire originating in the left front under hood area as a result of electrical overheating of the speed control deactivation switch."

Moreover, the fires seemed random, nearly all of them occurring when the vehicles had been parked and the engine turned off.

Yet Ford continued to install a similar switch -- also manufactured by Texas Instruments -- in its biggest-selling vehicle, the F-series pickup, as well as its full-size Expedition and Navigator sport utilities.

On Nov. 29, 2000, a 2001-model F-150 Super Crew Lariat XLT came off the assembly line at Ford's truck plant in Kansas City, Mo. The vehicle was equipped with a cruise control system virtually identical to that used in the recalled sedans.

Ford-buying family

Six months later, Juan Washington bought the pickup for $26,900 at Cherokee Ford in Woodstock, Ga., a booming residential area in the spreading suburbs north of Atlanta.

Image Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News
Juan Washington has a tattoo of his daughter's likeness. He was unaware of the reports of fires when he bought his F-150.

A self-employed mortgage broker, Washington didn't shop for any other model. "I always had Fords," he said. "My mother bought Fords."

Juan Washington was unaware of the previous recall of sedans, or the growing number of lawsuits Ford faced over fires in those vehicles.

All he knew was that his new F-150 fit the needs of his growing, middle-class family, which included his wife, Tanika, their son, Pryce, and their daughter, Blake.

Their lives revolved around school, sports and family, and their rambling home in a wooded subdivision was the center of activity for neighborhood children. "We always had a house full of them," Tanika said.

Holidays in the Washington home were huge, and none more so than Christmas 2003. Juan's teenage son Brannon, from a previous marriage, came to visit from Texas, and the holiday week was packed with parties and get-togethers with friends and relatives.

On Dec. 31, Juan, Tanika and the three children attended a high-school basketball tournament. She drove home about 11 p.m. in the F-150, while her husband drove their Ford Ranger pickup.

The family watched videos in the den, and Blake fell asleep on the couch, a pacifier in her mouth and wearing her daddy's T-shirt. Tanika carried her to the upstairs bedroom across the hall from where she and Juan slept.

Juan and Tanika drifted off to sleep by 1 a.m. The house was quiet. In the garage was the F-150 pickup that had been parked less than two hours earlier.

A father's nightmare

At first, Tanika couldn't place the sound that woke her up.

"It was like something was beating on the house, like it was raining really hard," she said. "When I woke all the way up, I realized it sounded more like crackling than it did raindrops."

Image Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News
Tanika Washington, who wears a locket containing Blake's picture, says their lawsuit is about getting to the truth behind their tragic loss. "I want somebody to give a damn that we lost our baby," she said.

She shook Juan awake, and he went to open the door. When he did, a blast of heat knocked him backward. The outside hallway was consumed in flames from the floor to the ceiling. Black smoke filled their bedroom.

Tanika froze, staring at the fire separating her from her daughter's room. Juan dove out of the second-floor window. With the smoke burning her eyes and choking her lungs, Tanika ran into the bathroom and tumbled out a window to the ground below.

She saw that the entire house was on fire. Screaming for help, she ran around the side of the home to see her husband pulling Pryce, then Brannon through the broken glass of their bedroom window. But Blake's window was just out of his reach. He was trying to get to it when firefighters pulled him back.

A neighbor videotaped the scene. In the video, flames shot to the sky as fire crews tried to keep the blaze from spreading into the tall pines and the homes next door. The lower-level garage was white-hot from the intense heat.

Emergency medical technicians hustled Tanika, sobbing hysterically, into an ambulance with Pryce and Brannon, both bleeding badly from deep cuts from the broken glass. But Juan refused to leave.

"I was just looking for some kind of hope," he said. "I wanted my daughter. I didn't want to leave her there by herself."

When the fire was finally put out, firefighters entered the rubble and found the body of Blake Washington under the remains of her mattress springs.

The Cobb County Medical Examiner later ruled the cause of death to be "smoke and heat inhalation associated with extensive charring of the body."

Fire officials combed the site for answers. While the home was virtually leveled, they concluded that the west side of the wood-frame structure -- the location of the garage -- sustained the most damage. The F-150 and Ranger were burned to the point where their vehicle identification numbers melted.

"Examination of the fire patterns revealed the fire traveled from the west side to the east side of the structure," investigator Ken LeCroy wrote in his report. "The west end of the structure sustained the most concentrated burning."

But the cause was a mystery. There was no evidence that the fire started in the home's electrical or gas systems. While the family sometimes lit candles and used the gas-fired fireplace, Tanika said she always put them out before bed.

In its final report dated Feb. 27, 2004, the Cobb County fire investigations unit listed the cause as "undetermined."

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After learning of Ford's recall, investigators have targeted the F-150, which has since been scrapped, as a possible source of the fire.

Family's life shattered

For the Washington family, there was only pain. "I remember wishing every night that God wouldn't wake me up," Tanika said. "I just remember not wanting to hurt like that every single day."

They moved into an apartment, but had to leave when neighbors complained about the steady stream of mourners that visited. Juan's mortgage business dwindled to almost nothing. Pryce couldn't sleep at night unless he curled up at the foot of his parents' bed.

They had lost everything they owned, and could barely pay their bills. Two months after the fire, a customer representative from Ford Credit called about the $546 monthly payments that had been missed on the F-150.

"I said the truck burned up," Juan said. "Then the lady at Ford said, 'We sent somebody out there and we've seen that the truck burned up.'"

Ford spokeswoman Kinley said she was unaware of anyone from Ford Credit examining the truck.

Eleven months after the Washington fire, NHTSA opened an investigation into fires in 2000-model F-150s, Expeditions and Navigators. According to federal documents, at least 47 fires had been reported to the agency since Blake had died.

Then, on Jan. 27 of this year, Ford announced its recall of 2000-model pickups and SUVS, and some 2001-model F-150 Super Crews.

A few days later, a friend approached Juan Washington at work. "He said, 'Did you know that F-150s are catching fire?'" Juan said. "'Didn't you have an F-150?'"

In a moment he'll never forget, Juan logged onto his computer and typed "Ford F-150" and "fires" into the Internet search engine. Instantly, a stream of news articles about the recall and Web sites for law firms popped onto the screen.

He called one of the firms, and reached Mark Chalos in Nashville.

"He sounded very distraught," Chalos said. "Not angry, just very upset."

On March 15, Chalos sent a letter to Donald Lough, a top corporate attorney at Ford, and Dr. Jeffrey Runge, the director of NHTSA, that outlined the circumstances of Blake Washington's death.

"The Washington family now believes that the fire originated in a defective cruise control switch in the family's Ford 2001 MY F-150 Super Crew Cab that was parked in the family's attached garage," the letter stated.

Federal probe widens

Ford never answered the letter. A week later, NHTSA launched its current probe into switches in 3.7 million F-150s, Expeditions and Navigators built between 1994 and 2001 -- including the Washingtons' pickup.

Their truck, however, no longer exists. After the fire, the site was cleared and the F-150 sold for scrap metal. Investigators in Cobb County never examined it before it was hauled away, a decision they regret.

"We did not become aware of the recall until after the fact," said Sanders, the senior fire investigator. "Had we known then what we know now, we certainly would have examined that truck."

Kinley, Ford's spokeswoman, said the absence of physical evidence -- the truck itself -- means the fire cannot be attributed to a faulty switch.

"I'm concerned that this case may be reported in a manner that would be false and misleading to consumers should this Georgia incident be described as a brake-pressure switch fire absent any expert or valid evidence," Kinley said.

One fire investigator said the intensity of the Washington fire was consistent with other fires linked to faulty cruise-control switches.

"A key characteristic of these fires is that they go from zero to nuclear in minutes," said Jeff Morrill, a Georgia-based fire expert who works with plaintiffs' attorneys. "They very quickly become robust fires without any warning whatsoever."

The fires are believed to be caused when flammable brake fluid leaks into the $20 switch and interacts with its constant electric current. With the brake fluid fueling it, the fire spreads rapidly to rubber, plastic and aluminum parts under the hood. Within minutes, the entire engine compartment is engulfed.

Chalos said that his firm's experts have closely examined where the Washington fire began and how it progressed through the house. "We're confident we can prove this case," he said.

Desperate for answers

Eighteen months after losing their daughter, Juan and Tanika Washington still don't go a day without thinking of Blake.

They struggled with the idea of filing a lawsuit against Ford, but decided that they couldn't go on without knowing what happened on that terrible morning.

As she held a tiny necklace with Blake's image on it, Tanika couldn't help but wonder if their tragedy might have been avoided.

"To think it could have been something that didn't have to happen," she said. "That's the number one thing ... that this does not happen to someone else."

Then she cried softly.

"We liked that truck," she said. "We would have gotten it fixed if we knew something so minor could cause something so horrific."