Rebuffed by Ford, cops look for car fixes alone

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Mechanics work to stop officers' fiery deaths in Crown Victorias
December 9, 2003
By Jennifer Dixon
Free Press Staff Writer

Last of two parts.

Mike Fuson was tired of waiting for help from Ford Motor Co. By the summer of 2001, two Arizona troopers were dead. A Phoenix cop was in the hospital, comatose and badly burned.
They all had one thing in common: Their Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor had caught fire when it was hit from behind.

For months, Ford had assured Fuson and his colleagues at the Arizona Department of Public Safety that nothing was wrong with the Crown Vic. Unsatisfied, Fuson decided to test a theory that summer. Could a piece of rubber radiator hose prevent more fires? “I wanted to come up with something in a relatively short period of time,” said Fuson, who is responsible for maintenance on state police cars as fleet manager for the Department of Public Safety. “I had a sense of urgency.”

He bought the hose at an auto supply store and began shaping it into a prototype shield for the rear shock towers, which connect the shock absorbers to the car's frame. Fuson was concerned that the Crown Vic's 19-gallon steel gas tank — mounted behind the rear axle — was susceptible to punctures from sharp parts around the axle. He then hired a company specializing in building aircraft components to manufacture high-density plastic shields, based on his rubber sample. His mechanics installed the covers on about 900 state-owned Crown Vic police cruisers that summer and fall.

Fuson recalled that he gave samples of the shock tower covers to Ford and told the company: “This is what you guys need to be doing for everybody.” Ford, however, insisted that the shields weren't necessary, he said. The company would maintain that position for another year.

It was the kind of exchange that police and mechanics say they had had with Ford since 1999, when a Florida trooper first raised questions about the Crown Vic. At the time, the trooper had recommended that Ford install safety shields and take other steps to protect the gas tank from exploding in rear-end crashes.

While Fuson's team was revamping state police vehicles in 2001, city mechanics in Mesa, Ariz., also were experimenting with shields. They, too, built their own. A photo dates their efforts to July 10 of that year. “We wanted to do whatever was in our power to provide safety for the officers,” said Dick Skalitzky, fleet support services superintendent for the City of Mesa. Skalitzky said the city ended up not using its own shields because he thought Ford soon would have something available.

Fuson's mechanics, while devising their shields, discovered other puncture sources near the gas tank. They found that a hexagonal-headed mounting bolt for the parking brake cable posed a puncture risk. They also determined that the tank could be vulnerable to some tabs on the stabilizer bar mounting brackets, which are rear axle components. They replaced the hex-headed bolt with a round one and grinded down the tabs.

In Tempe, Ariz., where Trooper Skip Fink had been killed in a 2000 rear-impact fire, the Police Department made the same discovery involving the bolt and sharp tabs. Tempe's mechanics also decided to replace the bolt and to grind down the tabs, but advised Ford before doing so.

The automaker refused to acknowledge a problem and told Tempe that if it made the modifications, Ford no longer would honor the warranties on the city's Crown Vics, said Police Chief Ralph Tranter. “Our yard people started doing the modifications themselves,” Tranter said. “We felt it was important.”

Doug Lampe, a lawyer for Ford, denied that Ford would stop honoring the city's warranties. “Ford never told Arizona mechanics we would void their warranty if they replaced the bolts,” Lampe said. “It wouldn't have affected warranty coverage.”

The mechanics in Tempe began the work in thesummer of 2001. That October, Ford shifted its stance. It sent a technical service bulletin to dealerships and police agencies, advising them to replace the hex-headed bolt with a round bolt. Ford also told them to grind down the tabs on the stabilizer bar mounting brackets on the Crown Vic, Lincoln Town Car and Mercury Grand Marquis. Ford said the fixes were recommended for vehicles exposed to “extremely high-speed rear impacts.” There was no mention of safety shields.

Prompted by Ford's bulletin, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration decided to investigate the three models. At 11:28 a.m. Nov. 2, 2001,Ford's manager of production vehicle safety and compliance informed three colleagues by e-mail that NHTSA had called to let him know it was preparing to open an investigation.

The manager, Bill Koeppel, expressed concern. The regulatory agency, he said, had been talking with lawyers who had sued the company as a result of police deaths and had learned that the lawyers had a set of minutes from a July 2001 meeting at Ford.

During that meeting, someone from the company was cited as saying that Ford “got an agreement NHTSA will not open” a Crown Vic investigation. Koeppel's e-mail described the minutes as inaccurate, but nonetheless noted concern. “Our credibility has been damaged,” he said in the e-mail. “I am meeting with them next Wednesday on another subject and would like to be fully up to speed so that I am able to address some of the things that are bothering them.”

The agency opened its investigation Nov. 27, 2001.

State, departments seek solutions
In early 2002, Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano was running for governor — and had taken up the Crown Vic as a cause. on March 4 of that year, Napolitano sent an eight-page letter to Ford's chairman and chief executive, Bill Ford, questioning his company's credibility.

She noted that his company, in marketing the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, had touted it as uniquely well-suited to police work because it has many special features, including heavy-duty frame and suspension, a unique 4.6-liter engine with pursuit calibration and a deep trunk for equipment. The rear-wheel-drive car also has a live rear axle, which means it moves up and down with the drive shaft, making the car responsive. To accommodate the design, Ford had placed the gas tank behind the rear axle in an area Napolitano referred to as a crush zone.

“All of these features illustrate Ford's recognition that its specialty vehicle is designed to be used in situations involving high-speed driving and severe duty,” Napolitano said in the letter. “As Ford's customer, the State of Arizona had a right to and did rely on Ford's self-professed expertise and experience in designing a crashworthy police vehicle. The State of Arizona had the right to assume that when Ford made an engineering judgment to place the tank of the CVPI in the crush zone, its engineers would utilize available, state-of-the-art features to ensure that the integrity of the gas tank was protected in a highway-speed rear impact.”

But an investigation by the state, according to Napolitano's letter, found that Ford never had crash-tested a Crown Vic Police Interceptor at speeds in excess of 50 m.p.h. — and it never had crash-tested a fully equipped version of the police car at any speed.

“The State of Arizona believes that Ford, with its experience and expertise in the design and engineering of police vehicles, should have made the CVPIs safe and crashworthy when they were sold,” the letter said. “Instead, based on information gathered during our investigation and information provided by Ford, Ford took no steps to provide for the safety of the CVPI fuel system at highway speeds. . . . The lack of crash-testing at highway speeds and the failure of Ford to promptly act to remediate what clearly continues to be a defective condition is highly disturbing.”

Napolitano also criticized the way Ford responded to the state's request for information, saying it raised “questions as to Ford's credibility.” Lampe, the Ford lawyer, said he does not think Napolitano still considers Ford unresponsive. “We had dozens of meetings with our police customers,” Lampe said. “We explained the science and the engineering.”

Before sending the letter, he said, neither Napolitano nor anyone in the Attorney General's Office had had any contact with Ford. She and the company have since established a relationship, he said. Ford opened talks with Napolitano in her offices on June 4, 2002, three months to the day after her letter was sent.

Eight days later, a Crown Vic fire claimed another Arizona cop.

Officer Robert Nielsen, 25, was on his way to an accident scene in downtown Chandler, outside Phoenix, when he swerved to avoid hitting another motorist. The rear of his 1999 Crown Vic struck a steel light pole and caught fire. Customers and employees from a Denny's restaurant came out to try to free Nielsen. But the car doors were jammed. They sprayed the fire with extinguishers, but it was futile. Nielsen died of thermal injuries and smoke inhalation. He had no life-threatening injuries from the impact, the autopsy found, and could have survived, except for the fire.

By now, Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza had lost patience with Ford Motor. He wrote to Bill Ford on June 18, saying it was time to “correct the design of the Crown Victoria to eliminate this safety hazard once and for all.” The next day, six Ford executives met with Mike Lopker, manager of the City of Phoenix's police fleet, and his boss, Mark Leonard, the city's public works director, at the Phoenix fleet maintenance yard. Ford Motor had set up the meeting before Rimsza wrote his letter.

The Ford executives passed out an eight-page brochure that said postcrash fires were rare and could be explained by the “unique circumstances of each accident, rather than any particular design attribute.” The brochure said the Crown Vic had a “proven track record as a safe, reliable vehicle for police use.” And it touted the automaker's relationship with police, saying the Crown Vic is the preferred police vehicle because “Ford works with police departments and meets their requirements.”

Halfway through the meeting — conducted separately from Napolitano's efforts — Leonard announced that the city was going to install heavy liners inside the gas tanks of its 650 Crown Vic police cars to prevent fuel spills during a wreck.

Lopker recalled Leonard as telling the Ford officials: “We don't need to hear how safe the car is. I don't think you understand. We're going to do bladders. That's a foregone conclusion. . . . Will you help us?” Lopker said the Ford officials tried to talk him and Leonard out of installing the liners, which would cost the city $1.5 million. But the company finally agreed to provide engineering help for the installations.

On June 25, Napolitano met with Ford executives in Dearborn. Ford remained adamant, she said, that the gas tank was safe and could not be moved. “They were never agreeable to moving the tank,” she said. “They said it wouldn't make a difference.”

But Ford Motor agreed to set up a technical task force of company engineers and outside experts, as well as a panel — that eventually included members of law enforcement — that would try to make “a safe car even safer.” Ford and Napolitano said the task force would look at the use of bladders or shields to protect the gas tank.

Three months later, on Sept. 27, 2002, the panel and Ford announced a plan. Ford executives said during a news conference in Phoenix that the company would install plastic shield kits to protect the gas tanks of 350,000 Crown Victoria police cars on the road nationwide. Ford is also installing those kits in the factory.

By then, three years had passed since state troopers in Florida had begun investigating fiery crashes of Crown Vics — and had issued a report recommending some of the same actions Ford was now taking. In that time, at least four officers had died nationwide — and another was badly burned. Ford insisted that only police cars would need the shields; civilian drivers weren't at risk as much as officers.

On Oct. 3, six days after the Ford announcement, NHTSA closed its investigation and said it had found no manufacturing defect in the Crown Vic, the Town Car or the Grand Marquis. The agency said the Ford vehicles met federal safety standards. Those standards, set in the 1970s, require the fuel tank to withstand a rear crash from a car going just 30 m.p.h. The agency is raising the standard to 50 m.p.h. The standard will be phased in starting with the 2007 model year. NHTSA said Ford already meets that standard for the three vehicles.

But not all rear-end crashes involving the Crown Vic have been above 50 m.p.h.

Hector Bermudez was driving down Hawthorne Boulevard in Torrance, Calif., as he patrolled the city after midnight with his partner, Mark Athan, on Nov. 6, 2002. They stopped for a red light, and a drunken man driving a 2002 Hyundai Sonata rear-ended their 2000 Crown Victoria at about 40 m.p.h. Both officers were knocked unconscious.

Athan awoke first and, after noticing that Bermudez was still out, realized the car was on fire. He jumped out the passenger door, and his next memory was of the fire, the way the car was filled with smoke, the back and roof ablaze. He circled around the rear of the cruiser and opened Bermudez's door.

“Wake up! Get up. GET UP!” he yelled at Bermudez, trying to pull him up from the driver's seat. Bermudez began coming to and pushed himself out the door as ammunition popped in the trunk. The gas tank had been punctured by a crowbar. Athan and Bermudez were lucky.

Patrick Metzler, a Dallas police officer, and Robert Ambrose, a New York state trooper, were not. Metzler died in his Crown Vic in October 2002. Ambrose died in his Crown Vic in December 2002. And with their deaths, the fears about the cars had spread well beyond the police agencies and mechanics' garages of Arizona and Florida to places such as Texas, New York and Louisiana.

In January, Louisiana's attorney general, Richard Ieyoub, said he was recommending an immediate moratorium on the purchase of Crown Vic Police Interceptors until Ford was able to show that the cars would not burst into flames upon rear impact. “What is particularly disturbing,” Ieyoub said in a news release, “in virtually each accident in which an officer died, the officer would have otherwise survived the accident, but was burned to death.”

Legislative hearings followed in New York and Texas.

Then came another fiery rear-end crash — this time in Missouri. Trooper Michael Newton died the morning of May 22 in a Crown Victoria that had the new safety shields. The gas tank had a small puncture, and the filler neck had been severed.

A week later, Dallas City Attorney Madeleine Johnson wrote a letter to Bill Ford, appealing to him to make the Crown Vic safer. The letter asked Ford to “work with us to bring this chain of tragic events to an end. Continuation of police officer death by fire is not acceptable.”

Sue Cischke, Ford vice president for environmental and safety engineering, responded within days, telling Johnson that Ford had tried to meet with the Dallas Police Department but had been denied access. “That is regrettable because I believe we could have addressed concerns, as we have with dozens of departments nationally, by demonstrating both the outstanding safety record of the CVPI and the work we have done with the law enforcement community,” Cischke said in a letter.

Two months later, Ford announced another change for the Crown Vic — an optional fire suppression system more often found inside military armored personnel carriers. The system, which Ford called an automotive industry first, will be available starting with the 2005 model.

Recovering trooper unable to return
It's been more than a year since rescuers pulled New York Trooper George Rought out of his flaming 1998 Crown Victoria, and he's still afraid to get back in the car. With his car's emergency lights flashing, Rought was diverting traffic from a low-lying utility line stretched across part of a highway in Hinsdale, N.Y, on Aug. 5, 2002.

A man hauling cattle with his pickup hit Rought's car from behind at about 50 m.p.h. Rought was knocked unconscious as his car caught fire. Six people rushed to the car, including two semitrailer drivers who tried to douse the flames with extinguishers. The others pried open the passenger door and yanked Rought out. As he was dragged away, the car exploded. “Another 20 seconds,” he said, “it would have been too hot to get me.”

Rought needed 23 staples to close a wound in the back of his head. He also had a herniated disk between his shoulders. Today, Rought, 49, is on disability and unable to work. He's seeing a psychologist. This summer, he stopped by his old trooperstation and got in a Crown Vic to see how it felt. “Just being in the car . . . I didn't like that sensation at all,” he said. “I don't want to get in a Crown Vic ever again.”

Contact Jennifer Dixon at 313-223-4410 or [email protected].