A Special Report: St. Petersbrg Times Deadly Combination: Ford, Firestone and Florida
 
 
Deadly Combination:
Ford, Firestone and Florida
Part One
  • Main story
  • Companies warming to settlements
  • At a glance
  • The players
  • Questions and Answers
  • A Timeline
  • What the companies say
  • Interview with Anita Kumar, the reporter
  • Graphic: How the tires failed
  • Graphic: When it’s too late
  • Graphic: By the numbers
  • Graphic: The human toll

  • Part Two
  • After the rollover
  • Suspect tires still on road
  • Driver side rear tires fail the most
  • About this report

  • Contact Anita Kumar:
  • Via e-mail: Click here
  • By phone: (727) 893-8472

    Further coverage
  • In first trial, Firestone settles lawsuit
  • Battered Firestone counting on local ties
  • Rollover crashes are hard to track
  • Ford leaves 2-door SUV unchanged
  • Recall may leave Firestone bankrupt
  • Government to expand tire recall
  • FHP says Firestone tire a factor in fatal crash
  • Two bay area lawsuits target Ford, Firestone
  • Ford agrees to test replacement tires
  • Ford recall: from bad to worse?
  • Ford's sub tires may fail more
  • Attention shifts from Firestone to Ford Explorer
  • Ford widens recall; companies cut ties
  • Ford recalls Wilderness AT Firestone tires
  • Dealerships brace for Ford tire recall
  • Tire decision not just for Ford owners
  • Voluntary tire recall rolling smoothly
  • Firestone cuts deal on bad tires
  • How the tires failed: An interactive graphic

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    The Sunshine State’s heat has been deadly for dozens of Ford drivers whose Firestone tires have disintegrated, making Florida the nation’s leader in Firestone-related deaths.

    photo
    [Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
    “Whenever we pass that sight in the road we remember her. We’re always sad, just passing that point,” Ida McDaniel says of the memorial marker for her sister, Fannie M. Williams, on a southbound stretch of Interstate 295 in Jacksonville. Williams, 30, was killed May 12, 1999, when a Firestone ATX rear tire separated and her ‘96 Ford Explorer rolled.

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 20, 2001


    In August 1999, Ford contacted Explorer owners in Saudi Arabia because the company believed the Firestone tires on their vehicles were defective and needed to be replaced.

    But 7,000 miles away in Jacksonville, Alaina Culleton didn't know that.

    Three months later, Culleton was driving with her 10-year-old daughter, Athena, on State Road 202 in a 1994 Explorer equipped with the same model tires that were replaced in Saudi Arabia. The passenger side rear tire came apart at 60 mph and the vehicle flipped several times.

    Athena was thrown from the Explorer and killed instantly.

    She was one of 28 people in Florida who might not have died if Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. had warned customers in the United States about the dangers of the same model tires being replaced overseas.

    photo
    When a tire on Alaina Culleton’s Explorer separated, the vehicle rolled, killing her 10-year-old daughter Athena.

    That's a key finding of a four-month St. Petersburg Times analysis of accidents involving sport utility vehicles and Firestone tires in Florida since 1995. The study is the first comprehensive look at the toll the nation's worst auto safety crisis has taken on Florida. The Times found:

    • At least 41 people died in Firestone-related accidents in Florida since 1997 -- far more than reported by the federal agency that oversees the auto industry.

    • Sixteen of those fatalities occurred after Ford began replacing Firestone tires in 16 other countries without telling the American public.

    • Even after the tire problems came to light, and the federal government opened an investigation, 12 people died in Florida before Firestone recalled the tires.

    • Eleven of the 41 people who died in Florida were in accidents involving Firestone tires that the company did not include as part of a national recall that began last August.

    The Times examined six years of state accident reports, federal government crash data and court documents and interviewed victims, lawyers, company officials and tire and vehicle experts.

    What emerged is that Florida's intense heat exacerbated the defects of Firestone tires -- hot temperatures make them disintegrate. The combination of heat and bad tires -- and the propensity of the Explorer to flip -- has been deadly.

    Thirty-six Florida accidents led to the 41 deaths. The number of fatal crashes is likely higher, though, because many people did not know what caused their accidents until years later or did not keep track of the type of tires they used.

    At least 110 additional accidents left 223 more people injured, some with brain damage, limb loss or paralysis. Dozens more left people physically unscathed but emotionally shaken.

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 174 people died throughout the nation in these accidents. Based on the Times' study, Florida would lead the nation in the number of Firestone-related deaths. But consumer groups think the government has vastly underestimated the death toll everywhere.

    Only six of the 600 staff members who work for the federal highway agency are investigating Firestone tires fulltime, agency spokeswoman Liz Neblett said. They only review cases brought to their attention.

    Ford and Firestone will not reveal how many accidents they have discovered and declined to specifically address the Times findings. But company officials along with lawyers and consumer groups have asked the Times for its results, which found far more accidents than any estimate by other organizations attempting to compile the information.

    "Firestone and Ford killed more people than the Oklahoma City bombing," said Dale Query, whose son Patrick was killed in Brevard County in 1999. "Both companies knew this was a problem. They had an opportunity to do the right thing. They could have saved lives."

    photo
    [Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
    This tire tread from a Firestone ATX tire on a 1993 Ford Explorer is linked to an accident in Fort Pierce that caused severe injuries among the Halkett family of Dunnellon, two adults and four children.

    Ford and Firestone officials acknowledge that some tires had design and manufacturing problems and that for years they failed to disclose crucial information about possible tire defects. Firestone also blames Ford for the design of the Explorer, which has a tendency to flip.

    "We absolutely believe these accidents are tragic," Firestone spokeswoman Jill Bratina said. "Everyone here at every level has been touched very deeply."

    Ford spokesman Ken Zino did not return repeated phone calls or respond to a letter for comment from the Times. Zino's employees have spoken about certain aspects of the recall but would not talk specifically about the Florida accidents.

    Ford spokesman Mike Vaughn would say only that the company is cooperating with a federal investigation of the tires.

    Without issuing a mandatory recall, the federal government along with Ford urged Firestone to voluntarily replace 14.4-million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires last summer. More than 6-million of those tires have been replaced since Aug. 9. Firestone officials said most of the remaining recalled tires are not in use.

    A federal investigation is now in its second year, but the government has yet to issue a mandatory recall or tell the public if other tires or vehicles have the same problems. It asked Firestone to replace another 1.4-million tires -- but the company refused.

    In Florida, Attorney General Bob Butterworth says the companies put consumers in danger, and he will file a lawsuit against them claiming they engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices.

    Meanwhile, Ford and Firestone are spending millions of dollars to settle lawsuits, redesign vehicles and tires and to launch advertising campaigns that would move them beyond last year's debacle.

    Firestone sales were down 22 percent in the first quarter of 2001 compared with the same time last year. Ford estimates the recall will cost more than $590-million.

    But as Ford and Firestone try to regain public confidence, consumer groups are demanding a wider recall of Firestone tires.

    "Ford and Firestone has been a wake-up call for the nation," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, a non-profit consumer group that has monitored the problem. "You can't trust companies or the government to protect you."

    photo
    [Photo courtesy of Patino & Associates]
    Rear passenger tire failure on this 1998 Ford Explorer caused this accident last August on Alligator Alley. Four members of the Smithwick family of Key West -- two adults and two children -- and another child were severely injured, but none was killed.

    'Heat is unquestionably a factor'

    With the back of his Explorer loaded with diving equipment, Patrick Query began the 4 1/2-hour trek from West Palm Beach to St. Augustine.

    At 27, Query was already his own boss, making a career out of his passion for water in the little known field of underwater construction. He found himself in demand, traveling from one construction site to another in his used 1994 Explorer.

    Two hours into the trip on July 25, 1999, the passenger side rear tire shredded at 70 mph. The Explorer flipped twice. Query was thrown onto Interstate 95 and killed.
    photo
    Diver Patrick Query died when a passenger-side rear tire shredded at 70 mph.

    His accident is typical of those reviewed by the Times.

    Most accidents involved a single vehicle losing a tire then flipping out of control. Most occurred on clear, warm days when the Florida sun was beating down. Most drivers were traveling about the speed limit, usually about 70 mph but as high as 85 mph, on well-traveled highways outlining the state. Tire experts say that warm weather combined with a high rate of speed can cause problem tires to heat up to more than 200 degrees and disintegrate.

    The companies and tire experts acknowledge that the climate has such a profound effect on the tires' weaknesses that certain warm states, including Florida, Texas and California, top the nation for these accidents. About 75 percent of the accidents nationwide have occurred in the South and Southwest.

    "Heat is unquestionably a factor," said Rex Grogan, who worked for the tire industry for years before opening his own tire consulting business in England. "The accidents are all in a band across the southern United States."

    The Times review shows that some of the single-vehicle accidents lasted just seconds and came without an obvious warning, making them almost impossible to prevent. Some drivers who survived said they heard a thumping noise but lost control of the vehicle before they could steer to safety.

    That's what happened to the Kent sisters as they drove home to Sarasota from a family vacation in the Florida Keys on Jan. 1, 2000.

    Kirsten and Kerren Kent thought they heard a noise coming from the tires and pulled into a gas station, Kerren Kent said. They ran around their 1997 Mercury Mountaineer -- a Ford-made equivalent of the Explorer -- kicking all four tires, she said.

    photo
    [Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
    Deirdre and Erik Kent hold a picture of their daughter, Kirsten, who died after the driver’s side rear tire came apart on a 1997 Mountaineer and flipped on Interstate 75 in Lee County.
    They didn't detect a problem so they headed back onto Interstate 75 without putting their seat belts back on. Less than a minute later, the driver's side rear tire fell apart. The Mountaineer flipped. Kirsten, a 20-year-old sophomore at Harvard University, was killed.

    Of the 41 people who were killed, 14 were wearing seat belts; 23 were not. It is unknown whether the other four victims were. In some cases, attorneys say Firestone has blamed the victims for not wearing seat belts.

    The Kents' accident was typical in another way: It involved a rear-tire failure. Of the state's 36 fatal accidents, 35 had rear-tire failures.

    Why do so many rear-tire failures cause fatal accidents? Tire experts say the driver is more likely to lose steering control when a rear tire is lost. That's compounded when driving SUVs, which flip more easily than passenger cars, auto industry and consumer experts say.

    Ford SUVs had rollover problems long before defective Firestone tires came into the picture. Consumer Reports criticized the Bronco II, the Explorer's predecessor, for being prone to flip. In the 1980s, Ford overhauled the Bronco II and kept that history in mind as it designed the Explorer.

    All but one of Florida's 36 fatal accidents involved a vehicle rolling over, often multiple times.

    Some characteristics that make the Explorer unstable are its top-heavy nature, wheels that aren't wide enough apart, a high cargo floor and suspension that slows braking and allows wheels to slip, auto industry and consumer experts have said. Some of these elements are being redesigned in the four-door 2002 Explorer, though Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said that has nothing to do with Firestone-related accidents.

    Ford is aggressively settling lawsuits, but company officials continue to blame the tire. Ford officials point out that Goodyear tires that were installed on nearly half the Explorers made from 1995 to 1997 have caused little trouble. They further contend that Explorers have lower death rates than other SUVs.

    Firestone says Ford is at least partly to blame for designing vehicles prone to flip and instructing customers to put too little air in their tires. Firestone officials say customers are encouraged to load their car pools into their Explorers or fill them up with groceries or supplies for trips to the rugged outdoors even though overloading the rear of the vehicle makes it vulnerable to rollovers.

    The Times study found that in 17 of the 36 accidents, more than three people were in the vehicles, which also were crammed with luggage as families and friends headed to the theme parks and beaches for which Florida is famous.

    Medhat Labib was behind the wheel on Oct. 1, 1999, driving home after a niece's wedding rehearsal. His wife and two sons were in the family's Explorer along with three friends who had joined the festivities.

    Just 10 minutes from Indialantic home, the rear tire on the driver side came apart at 70 mph.

    The 1996 Explorer rolled over, once, twice, three times. It stopped in a mass of trees off Interstate 95 in Melbourne.

    His wife, Margaret Labib, 42, died. Their son, Andrew Labib, 9, was thrown from the vehicle and killed. Labib, 49, was left paralyzed from the waist down. No others in the vehicle were severely injured.

    Labib, now a single father to his surviving son, sued and already settled lawsuits with both companies in what is now considered one of the worst Ford-Firestone crashes in the nation.

    "I hadn't heard of anything like that before," Labib said. "I couldn't believe anything like that could happen."

    Recall starts slowly abroad, here

    In Saudi Arabia, the complaints began in mid-1997. Drivers told Ford dealers that the Firestone tires on their Explorers were coming apart, causing vehicles to roll over. Injuries and even deaths were reported.

    Firestone and Ford initially chalked the troubles up to Third World conditions: rough roads, hot climates and customers who didn't put enough air in their tires and drove too fast. There was talk by the companies of a possible recall, but officials decided against it.

    In July 1998, State Farm, the nation's largest auto insurer, reported to the federal government a spike in claims involving Explorers and Firestone tires in the United States. Still, the companies did not take action here or overseas.

    Firestone officials contend that industry data did not reflect an unusual number of problems and have since changed the way they analyze data. Ford officials say they did not know about the trouble until they received information from Firestone.

    "When you have millions and millions of vehicles on the road, it's like a proverbial needle in a haystack," Ford spokesman Jon Harmon said.

    Over the next several months, complaints mounted in Saudi Arabia. Ford began talking recall again, but found no ally in Firestone. Firestone officials feared a recall would be costly and spread to the safety-conscious United States. Lawsuits would surely follow.

    An internal Ford memo dated March 12, 1999, written after numerous accidents in Saudi Arabia, noted that "Firestone legal has some major reservations" about replacing tires in Saudi Arabia. The memo, made public during a congressional inquiry last year, said of the tiremaker: "First, they feel that the U.S. (Department of Transportation) will have to be notified of the program, since the same product is sold in the U.S."

    The memo also says Firestone officials "believe the best course of action for the vehicles already in the market is to handle the tire issues on a case-by-case basis."

    In August 1999, Ford decided to replace Firestone tires with Goodyear tires on its Explorers in Saudi Arabia. Firestone refused to pay any of the millions of dollars in costs, so Ford changed the tires as part of a "customer satisfaction" program without advertising it as a recall.

    Ford ended up replacing tires in 16 South American and Asian countries.

    But the first public hint of real trouble in the United States came in February 2000 when a Houston TV station reported a rash of complaints about Firestone tires and Ford Explorers. The federal government opened its investigation that May.

    There was no official recall of tires until August. That's when Firestone formally recalled 6.5-million ATX and AT tires. It said the defective tires mostly came from its Decatur, Ill. plant.

    In the year between the unofficial recall in Saudi Arabia and the official recall in the United States, 28 Floridians were killed in Firestone-related accidents.

    "Every one of these cases could have been avoided had Ford and Firestone disclosed the information in a timely way, 1999 at the latest," said Ralph Patino, a Coral Gables lawyer who represents 30 victims in cases against Ford and Firestone, most of them in South Florida. "Bottom line -- had there been a recall or an advisory in the United States. I wouldn't have these cases. . . . You just say to yourself, "My God, this is unbelievable.' "

    Federal highway agency officials said they did not act quicker because American companies are not obligated to inform U.S. authorities about overseas recalls. Last year, Congress passed a law changing that.

    "The agency really has been beaten down on this issue," said Joan Claybrook, the agency's leader under President Jimmy Carter and now the head of Public Citizen, a consumer group founded by Ralph Nader. "It's been a huge embarrassment."

    photo
    [AP 2000]
    Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, testifies before a Senate subcommittee. Claybrook says the recall has been a “huge embarrassment” for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

    Government highway officials insist they have done the best job they could, even though they admit they also disregarded the State Farm data in 1998 that showed a rise in claims for Ford Explorers and Firestone tires.

    "We have been doing the best we can with the resources we have," highway agency spokesman Rae Tyson said. "I think our record is pretty good. I think we've done an admirable job."

    But what about tires like the ones on Christine Sagrista's Explorer?

    They were the same size and design as the recalled tires, but they were manufactured in Wilson, N.C., not Decatur, Ill. Those tires have not been recalled.

    Sagrista was riding in a 1997 Ford Explorer along Florida's Turnpike on Nov. 23, 1999, with her twin 2-year-old sons. She heard a "boom" seconds before she lost control of the vehicle.

    Alexander was killed. Christopher was injured.

    Consumer groups are aggressively lobbying the government to expand the recall. That could include the remaining 33-million similar tires still on the road.

    "I know other families are still driving around with these tires believing they are safe," Sagrista said. "They should have those tires replaced to protect themselves and their loved ones."

    Ford, which temporarily stopped installing Firestone tires on its Explorers and now gives customers a choice of brands, is pressuring Firestone to expand its recall, according to news reports last week.

    Firestone is fighting an expanded recall, saying the tires on the road today are safe.

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