Ford insists cars safe, but cops keep dying

Fatalities from rear-crash fires are higher than government toll

DETROIT FREE PRESS

December 8, 2003

By Jennifer Dixon

Free Press Staff Writer

First of two parts

Sheriff's Deputy Matthew Dominick barely had time to react last October when he saw a car hurtling toward his parked Crown Victoria on a roadside in Boone County, Iowa. He jumped to another lane, just as the Chevy Malibu slammed into the rear of his 2003 Crown Vic, ripping open its 19-gallon steel gas tank and igniting a fuel-fed fire that engulfed the patrol car in seconds. Ammunition and bags of confiscated fireworks began firing in the trunk, forcing emergency workersto take cover in a ditch. No one was hurt. But afterward, Sheriff Ron Fehr found himself asking a question that has dogged Ford Motor Co. for years: Does the most popular police car in America have a fatal flaw?

A Free Press investigation found that more people have died in fiery rear-impact crashes in the Crown Victoria and two similar sedans than federal regulators revealed when they cleared the vehicles and their rear-mounted gas tanks of any manufacturing defects last year. The regulators, focusing mainly on police cases, counted 16 fatalities in rear-impact fires in cars built between 1992 and 2001. But the Free Press documented 30 deaths during that span and a total of 69 in the last two decades, including at least 18 officers.

Ford insists the Crown Vic is safe and meets all federal standards, a view shared by regulators. Ford also says the car has a comparable record to other big sedans in fatal fires resulting from all types of crashes. But the story of the Crown Vic Police Interceptor is about more than statistics. It is a story of how police agencies and their mechanics sought for three years to convince Ford to end the roadside infernos, while the toll of victims continued to grow. It is also an inside look at an automaker's struggle to persuade police that the cars were not inherently flawed -- and that no vehicle could withstand the kinds of crashes that were killing cops.

Throughout 2000 and 2001, as Ford was mired in a corporate crisis brought on by fatal rollover accidents involving its popular Explorer, the world's No. 2 automaker kept assuring police and their mechanics that they had nothing to fear with the Crown Vic. Ford met with police and political officials, offering up bar charts and brochures to allay their concerns. But as the deaths increased, and as autopsy reports showed that many of the officers would have survived if not for the fires, Ford reversed course. The company agreed to begin outfitting the police cars with safety shields to protect the gas tanks. Mechanics at some police departments had begun doing the same thing on their own a year before. When the new shields failed to quell lingering fears, the company took an extraordinary next step. It decided to offer fire suppression systems in the 2005 model of its police interceptors, the kinds of systems typically found in armored personnel carriers. The automaker says it was simply making a safe car safer. Ford officials emphasize that no design can eliminate all risk in high-impact crashes.

The company also says fatality figures are meaningless in isolation. "I think the focus of saying, 'Here's a list of people who have died in a Crown Vic' takes away the view of, 'Are these frequent accidents? Are these rare accidents?' " said Sue Cischke, Ford vice president for environmental and safety engineering. "These are very rare accidents occurring under very high-speed, high-energy impacts. To use a word like death toll makes it sound like it's an epidemic, and I just think that's the wrong way of looking at it." The reality is that rear-end crashes are rare. And police tend to be at greater risk than civilians of being in rear-impact crashes because they're often in harm's way while stopped at crash scenes and on roadsides.

Even so, some police and consumer advocates remain critical of Ford's response. "Some people are being killed who didn't need to be," said Patricia Werhane, a professor of business ethics at the University of Virginia and DePaul University in Chicago, who has studied the Ford Pinto. The small car came under scrutiny in the 1970s for rear-end fires that killed at least 26 people. Werhane said the Crown Vic, with its gas tank behind the rear axle, should have been reengineered by now. It is built on a platform, or basic mechanical structure, launched in 1979. Industry experts said most passenger cars built today have gas tanks forward of the rear suspension because it's considered a more protected location.

In the Iowa deputy's case, Dominick's car had been outfitted with Ford's new safety shields. But the Crown Vic still burst into flames, leaving him and his boss with doubts about whether the gas tank can ever be fixed. "It makes you wonder," the sheriff said. "It didn't help." Lt. Greg Abbott of the Cobb County Police Department in suburban Atlanta, who narrowly escaped death in a Crown Vic hit from behind in 2002, is convinced something is wrong: "In a rear-impact accident, the Crown Vic is just a firebomb waiting to happen."

Police deaths in the car mount

It was 1998 when Lt. James Wells Jr. of the Florida Highway Patrol first suspected something was wrong. Two Florida highway patrol officers had been involved in similar rear-end crashes with fire. In 1997, Trooper Robert Smith was killed when a driver hit his Crown Vic from behind, setting his car ablaze. A year later, Trooper Marisa Sanders was severely injured when her Chevrolet Caprice patrol car was hit, leaking gas that caught fire as she stood outside the vehicle. Two late-night accidents. Two drunken drivers. Two different police cars. Too many coincidences for Wells. Wells, who runs the patrol's equipment, compliance and testing office, began to investigate.

He looked at all known deaths by fire in rear-ended police cars and determined that the Crown Vic and the Caprice were catching fire at about the same rate. But General Motors Corp.had stopped making the Caprice in 1996, leaving the market for police cars largely to Ford. So Wells decided to take a harder look at the Crown Vic and its gas tank, sandwiched between the rear axle and the forward trunk wall. After investigating for more than seven months, Wells reported his findings to Col. Charles Hall, director of the Florida Highway Patrol, on July 26, 1999. That same Monday, as Hall met with his staff to discuss Wells' report, another Florida cop died.

Madison County Sheriff's Deputy Steven Agner was driving less than 5 miles an hour as part of a construction crew in north Florida when a Florida State University student, talking on her cell phone, came cruising along I-10. At about 70 m.p.h., her Chevrolet pickup plowed into Agner's 1999 Crown Vic patrol car. The Crown Vic caught fire immediately. Agner was trapped inside with a broken collarbone. The autopsy showed he burned to death.

The next day, Wells inspected the gas tank of Agner's car and found that it had been cut by the arm that holds the shock absorber on the right side of the rear axle. He added the details to his report. A week later, on Aug. 3, the Highway Patrol shipped Wells' report to Ford with a recommendation: Move the Crown Victoria's fuel tank from behind the rear axle to an area in front of it. If the tank couldn't be moved, Wells wrote, Ford should consider other options -- reinforcing the tank with shields to protect it from suspension components, lining the inside of the gas tank with a bladder to prevent leaks or installing a fire suppression system. In a letter accompanying the report, Hall told Ford the Crown Victoria "does not adequately protect our officers in one of their principal job environments."

Wells waited nine months for his first meeting with Ford to talk about his report. In the meantime, the fires and deaths continued, with police still the most visible victims. On Feb. 18, 2000, Officer Skip Fink pulled over a motorist for a traffic violation on U.S. 60 in Tempe, Ariz. It was 5:40 a.m., not yet daylight. Before Fink could get out of his car, a Honda Prelude slammed into his 1999Crown Victoria. Gas gushed out of the punctured tank, and flames quickly consumed the car. Several motorists tried to help Fink. They heard the 264-pound man moaning and trying to speak as he tried to escape. Finally, rescuers pulled him from the wreckage. He was alive when paramedics arrived but showed no signs of life when he arrived at the Maricopa County Medical Center. An autopsy showed he died of burns and smoke inhalation. He had no other traumatic injuries.

There would have been nothing suspicious about Fink's death -- except that 14 months earlier, the same thing had happened to state Police Officer Juan Cruz. Parked on the inside westbound lane of I-10 outside Tucson, Cruz was finishing an accident report in his 1996 Crown Victoria when it was rear-ended by a woman who had been drinking while celebrating her 21st birthday. The patrol car burst into flames.Cruz died fromburns and smoke inhalation.

Two rear-ended Crown Victorias. Two fireballs. Two dead state troopers. Too many coincidences for Mike Lopker, manager of the City of Phoenix's police fleet. Lopker worried: Was something wrong with the Crown Vic? Would an officer on the Phoenix force die next? From a mechanics' yard in south Phoenix, Lopker's assistants called Ford. Lopker said Ford assured them the car was safe. He recalled a Ford official as saying, "We don't have anything to share. We don't know anything about this. You're the only one experiencing this."

Kristen Kinley, a Ford spokeswoman, said the company tried to be responsive to all of its police customers. "Safety at Ford has never taken a backseat to other issues," she said. Lopker, a mechanic, assumed he was a lone voice in Arizona, unaware that Wells, the Florida trooper, had warned Ford about the vehicle six months earlier.

Nonetheless, he persisted in seeking answers. Lopker had mechanics put four Crown Vics up on lifts to look for any sharp edges or metal tabs that could puncture the gas tank. They didn't find anything remarkable. "We're in the maintenance business," Lopker said. "We don't do crash investigations. We didn't understand what happens in a crash." Lopker's office called its Ford representative in the Phoenix area, asking whether he knew anything about the fires or car. "We were unsuccessful getting any information from Ford," Lopker said.

In the meantime, Wells, who wrote the Florida Highway Patrol report, met with Ford officials in Dearborn on May 4, 2000. They put cars on lifts, examined the vehicles and talked about Wells' concerns. He said Ford assured him themodel was safe. In Arizona, Lopker and officials at the state Department of Public Safety remained worried. The department called Ford in January 2001. The next month, Ford dispatched a handful of representatives to Phoenix to meet with department officials. The Ford representatives pulled out charts and accident statistics and told the state troopers that the Crown Victoria was as safe as it could be and exceeded federal standards.

Just before midnight on March 26, 2001, Phoenix Police Officer Jason Schechterle was called to investigate a report of a dead body. Firefighters also were dispatched. on his way to the scene, at an intersection in Phoenix, a taxi with a passenger just out of jail rammed intoSchechterle's 1996 Crown Vic. A fire engulfed the vehicle. Firefighters, already at the scene, put it out. With black smoke and flames swirling around the car, Officer Kevin Chadwick saw what he thought was a silhouette in the front seat. Schechterle was trapped in the seat belt, unconscious. Chadwick cut the belt and freed Schechterle. The fire had burned away Schechterle's ears and most of his nose. It had mangled his hands. He remained in a coma for more than two months and, when he woke, discovered he was blind.

Concern continues to rise

Lopker's worst fears were now realized. But Ford still was telling him the Crown Vic was the "safest car you can buy," he said, and the automaker explained that it could not design a car to survive every crash or protect against all conditions. The Crown Vic has rear-wheel drive and what is known as a live rear axle, features cops value. When the wheels move up and down, the whole axle moves up and down. The drive shaft, which runs the length of the car from the engine to the rear axle, also must be able to move with the axle. That kind of movement requires room in the car's underbody, leaving little space for a gas tank in front of the rear axle. Ford said the only option was to place the tank behind the rear axle.

Still not satisfiedwith what he was hearing from Ford, Lopker turned to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, which monitors auto safety. He wanted to know whether the Crown Vic was susceptible to rear-impact fires. What troubled him was that he never had seen a problem on such a wide scale when his officers drove the Chevrolet Caprice, which also had a rear-mounted gas tank. But unlike the Crown Vic's steel tank, the Caprice's tank was plastic and mounted horizontally below the trunk floor. The Crown Vic's tank is mounted vertically, with greater exposure to suspension parts, NHTSA records show. Lopker asked his staff to call NHTSA in Washington, D.C.

At first, they called once a day. Then once a week. Then every two weeks. Then once a month. No answer. "They didn't want to talk to us -- ever," Lopker said. Responding in a recent interview, NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said: "I reject that we were nonresponsive. The agency was very responsive to the concerns that were raised by a number of law enforcement agencies."

Dennis Garrett, director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, also was pressing NHTSA for answers. "There is an unusually high occurrence of fires associated with rear-end collisions of Crown Victoria vehicles," Garrett said in a letter to NHTSA dated April 3, 2001. "This is a trend which should be looked at to see if it is reflected at the national level. The design specifications and construction of the Crown Victoria should be examined by the experts at your disposal to determine if a design flaw exists or authoritatively state that the Crown Victoria, which has become the last full-sized police package sedan, is a safe vehicle for our nation's law enforcement officers."

NHTSA responded by sending a representative to Phoenix to meet with Garrett and other department officials. The representative told them the car was built to federal standards. But the pressure on NHTSA intensified. on June 5, 2001, a defect investigator from NHTSA and a division chief recommended that the agency investigate how often the Crown Vic was catching fire.

In late June, two Ford executives -- Brian Geraghty, director of design analysis, and Bill Koeppel, manager of production vehicle safety and compliance -- met with NHTSA officials to discuss the Crown Vic. During the two-hour meeting, Geraghty and Koeppel passed out the same booklet that Ford had been giving to worried police agencies, according to Geraghty's testimony in a lawsuit filed in the 1997 death of Florida Trooper Robert Smith. Geraghty testified in a deposition that he and Koeppel met July 3 with Ford's Critical Concerns Review Group, which reviews safety issues, and explained to the group "that there wasn't a defect investigation being opened. We were not told of one being opened." Someone was keeping minutes and made this notation about the potential investigation: "got an agreement NHTSA will not open."

Geraghty, in an interview with the Free Press, described those minutes as inaccurate and said the note-taker was the "kind of a person in the corner who writes things down." "There was not an agreement," he said. "There never was an agreement."

Ford was mired in rollover battle

In any event, the last thing Ford needed at the time was another public relations nightmare, another federal investigation. The company already was reeling from a year of crises. The automaker was roiled by a bitter fight with Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. over who was to blame for fatal accidents caused when Firestone tires failed and Ford Explorers rolled over. Ford also was bleeding money. Sales were slipping. Its U.S. market share was eroding.

Doug Lampe, a Ford lawyer, said the tumult did not overshadow Ford's response to the Crown Vic fires. "The company has the staff, the resources, to handle multiple issues at one time," Lampe said. "That is not a challenge we are unable to meet." The rollover controversy erupted in 2000, when Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 14.4 million tires, most of them on the Explorer, under pressure from Ford. Congressional hearings soon followed. The wrangling between the companies flared up again on May 21, 2001, when Firestone said it was ending its 95-year relationship with Ford, creating a messy public divorce.

The next day, Ford announced it would replace 13 million more Firestone tires not covered by the original recall. Ford blamed Firestone, saying it had built defective tires for the Explorer. Bridgestone/Firestone blamed Ford, saying the design of the Explorer caused it to roll over when a tire failed. By then, nearly 150 people had died in crashes blamed on the tires, most of which were on Explorers. NHTSA cleared the Explorer in October 2001, saying its design did not contribute to rollovers that occurred after tire tread separations.

But the crisis took its toll, and there was unrest in the executive ranks. The first hint of changes to come occurred when Bill Ford, company chairman, began taking more control of the business in July 2001. The board created the Office of Chairman and Chief Executive. Under the unorthodox arrangement, Ford and Chief Executive Jacques Nasser met every few weeks to review company operations. And it appeared Nasser and many top aides might be on the way out. That August, as the company's red ink grew, Ford announced that it was cutting 4,000 to 5,000 white-collar jobs. on Oct. 30, Nasser was ousted, and Bill Ford stepped in as chief executive.

By year's end, Ford would suffer staggering losses -- $5.45 billion. on Jan. 11, 2002, Ford announced a sweeping restructuring -- it was cutting 21,500 jobs in North America, a total of 35,000 worldwide. It was closing five plants and killing off four poor-selling vehicles. Against this tumultuous backdrop, the problem of fires in police cars was a quiet, relatively small crisis. But it was catching up with Ford.

Contact Jennifer Dixon at 313-223-4410 or dixon@freepress.com.

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