SUV's flaw might be fire's cause

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Tuesday,  April 8, 2008 3:13 AM By Randy Ludlow
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH Peter Romans reported that the house fire that killed his wife and two children early Sunday started in his sport-utility vehicle parked under an attached carport.

Yesterday, the state fire marshal's office confirmed that the origin of the fire had been traced to the carport, but investigators have not determined a cause.

The fire marshal's office could not confirm the model of the burned SUV, but motor-vehicle registration records show that the family owned a 2001 Ford Expedition. The vehicle is among 9.6 million Fords under a voluntary safety recall because of an electrical problem that could cause fires.

The recall of 2001 Expeditions and other Ford vehicles concerned a faulty cruise-control switch that can "lead to a vehicle fire at any time," according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Several dwelling fires have been attributed to the faulty switch, which can overheat and spark a fire, according to an NHTSA consumer advisory issued Feb. 28.

The fire in Madison County killed Billi Romans, 51; Ami Romans, 16; and Caleb Romans, 12. Their bodies were found near the back door of the house on Lilly Chapel-Opossum Run Road south of West Jefferson.

Mr. Romans, 47, suffered minor burns and smoke inhalation and was released after being treated at a Columbus hospital.

Wesley Sherwood, safety communications manager for Ford, said yesterday that Mr. Romans received five mailings from the automaker regarding the need to disconnect or repair the defective cruise-control switch. Ford's recall-information Web site showed that the family's Expedition had not been returned for repair.

Fatal fires reportedly caused by the defective switch have led to wrongful-death lawsuits against Ford by vehicle owners.

Sherwood said the company disputes the federal safety agency's statement that the vehicles with the defective switch have started structure fires.

"There's litigation, but that's different than any conclusive answer there has been a fire," he said.

An investigation found smoke detectors in the family's home, but it did not appear that they sounded, said Shane Cartmill, a spokesman for the fire marshal.

In the past week, fires have led to the deaths of two firefighters near Cincinnati, a family of five in Ada and the three Romanses in Madison County.

Fifty-six people, including a man who died in a fire yesterday in Wheelersburg in Scioto County, have died in fires in Ohio this year. Working smoke detectors have been found in only four fatal residential fires.

Last year, Ohio had 129 fire-related deaths, a substantial drop from the 198 in 2006.

Fire Marshal Michael P. Bell called on Ohioans yesterday to make sure that operable smoke detectors are installed in their homes, and to develop an escape plan to safely escape a fire.