Fire a recurrent peril in Jeep collisions

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Chenequa motorist was at least the 3rd to die in 2007 after fuel tanks ruptured

Nineteen-year-old Stacey Mayer lost her life July 3 inside a Jeep Grand Cherokee after her vehicle was struck from behind by another motorist in Waukesha County, rupturing the Jeep fuel tank and sparking an intense fire.

It’s a horrific scene that has played out at least two other times this year and twice last year in U.S. crashes involving Jeep sport utility vehicles, according to a review of news reports and interviews with automotive experts.

No recall notices specific to the location of Jeep fuel tanks have been issued, and a spokesman for the Jeep parent company, DaimlerChrysler, said the vehicles meet federal design safety standards.

But automotive experts say Grand Cherokee, Cherokee and Liberty models manufactured before 2005 were alone among sport utility vehicles, including other Jeeps such as the Wrangler, in placing the fuel tank behind the rear axle. They also say they have not seen the same pattern of rear-end collision fires involving ruptured fuel tanks in other SUVs.

Sean Kane, a researcher on motor vehicle safety for attorneys and government agencies, said that while no statistics are compiled, rear-end collisions resulting in fires in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Cherokee and Liberty models have been a recurring problem since the early 1990s.

"There is a good pattern of this," he said. "There is no question about it."

The Grand Cherokee was the top-selling large sport utility vehicle in southeastern Wisconsin last year, according to Reg-Trak Inc., a Waterloo-based company that monitors auto sales.

Recent similar crashes involving Jeeps include:

• March 6, 2007: A woman was killed and the driver of a 1993 Jeep Cherokee was burned when their vehicle was rear-ended and caught fire on Interstate 10 in Cabazon, Calif.

• Feb. 24, 2007: The driver of a 1996 Jeep Cherokee was killed when the vehicle was rear-ended and became fully engulfed on an interstate in Newark, N.J.

• April 8, 2006: Erle Dobson, 40, driver of a Jeep Cherokee, was killed when the vehicle was hit from behind and caught fire on a highway in Wilmington, Del.

• Feb. 12, 2006: Cassidy Jarmon, 4, died and her 21-month-old sister was critically injured with 60% of her body burned after the 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee she was in caught fire from a 30-mph rear-end collision on a street in Cleburne, Texas. The Jarmon family sued DaimlerChrysler, and the case is in litigation in Texas. At least two other similar lawsuits are pending in New York and Florida.

Two similar crashes in 2001 led to lawsuits in which the parties agreed to out-of-court settlements with DaimlerChrysler.

In Oct. 6, 2001, Kenneth Smith of Jacksonville, Fla., suffered burns as a result of his 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee being rear-ended and catching fire. Smith sued DaimlerChrysler in 2002, alleging the location of the Jeep fuel tank was poorly designed.

In Jan. 26, 2001, John Belli, his wife Lynne and their infant daughter Nicole were killed when their 1999 Jeep Cherokee was rear-ended and burst into flames on Interstate 85 in Atlanta. The Belli family sued DaimlerChrysler in June 2001, alleging the location of the fuel tank made it susceptible to rupture.

Attorneys for both cases declined to discuss the settlements.

A seizure, then fiery crash

In the Mayer crash, the Chenequa woman had just finished working out at Lakewood Racquet Club about 9 a.m. July 3 and was on her way to pick up her friend for breakfast when she exited Highway 16 for Highway C in Nashotah.

Behind her on the exit ramp, 77-year-old Norman Eckliff of the village of Pewaukee was suffering a seizure at the wheel of his 2005 Ford Freestyle. As his wife, Joan, desperately attempted to take control of the vehicle, it slammed into the rear of Mayer’s 2001 Grand Cherokee, rupturing its fuel tank and spewing gasoline along the pavement. Mayer’s Jeep burst into flames and exploded after settling onto the Highway C guardrail.

"Well, you can obviously see what happened here," Waukesha County Sheriff’s Detective Steve Pederson said at the crash site.

Pederson, who gestured to charred grass along the off-ramp and center divider, said Mayer’s vehicle rolled over at least once but the Jeep was ablaze before it rolled over.

He said there was no way to reach the trapped Mayer, whose vehicle was already engulfed in flames by the time help arrived.

The Sheriff’s Department has not yet concluded its investigation into the crash, Pederson said.

When contacted for comment about the Mayer crash and several others around the country, DaimlerChrysler spokesman Max Gates said Jeep models manufactured by his company have been self-certified as meeting the minimum National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulations on rear-end collisions.

"Attorneys allege many things," Gates said. "There is nothing inherently unsafe about the design."

NHTSA regulations require no fuel spillage after a rear-end collision involving a moving barrier traveling at 50 mph. Before October 2005, the threshold was 30 mph.

In the crash that killed Mayer, authorities said Eckliff was traveling at high speed when he collided with the Jeep. Investigators are still trying to determine how fast he was going, but it is thought to be at least 65 mph based on a witness account.

Fuel tank fires rare

Kennerly Digges, a former executive director at NHTSA and the research director at the National Crash Analysis Center at George Washington University, said that while rear-end collisions are common, rear-end collisions resulting in fires are unusual. When they do happen, he said, fires are more often engine-related rather than due to a ruptured fuel tank.

Digges said that as of the early 1990s, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Cherokee and Liberty models and Ford’s Mustang and Crown Victoria models were the only vehicles he knows of that had the fuel tank behind the rear axle.

He said many factors contribute to a vehicle fire following a collision, but if there isn’t a driveshaft, the safest location for the fuel tank should be at the center of the vehicle, in front of and below the rear axle.

"It’s not black and white, but based on the nature of most collisions, it should be there," he said.

Digges compared the location of the Jeep tanks to those on the 1970s Ford Pinto, which inspired recalls after rear-end crashes caused fires, and the Ford Crown Victoria police cars in 2002 that sparked an investigation by NHTSA.

Those cars, he said, had fuel tanks aft of the rear axle.

"In the end, you’re better off not putting it back there," he said.

Most vehicle manufacturers relocated fuel tanks forward of the rear axle after the 1970s and 1980s to protect the tanks, he said.

Cam Cope, a board member of the National Association of Fire Investigators and an automotive historian, said many vehicle manufacturers started relocating the fuel tank in 1971 and advertised the improved "safety" of the redesign.

He said DaimlerChrysler didn’t move the fuel tank of the Grand Cherokee to the front of the rear axle until the 2005 model year. The Cherokee model is no longer made. The Jeep Liberty fuel tank continues to be placed behind the rear axle, according to a dealer service center.