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
    photo
    [Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
    This non-recalled 1997 Firestone tire separated while being driven on a 1989 Ford Bronco II.
    photo
    Judge Sarah Evans Barker has been asked to expand the recall.
    photo
    [Times photo: Amber Tenille Woolfolk]
    Lisa Cesta loads her daughter, Julia Cesta, into her Explorer after having its Firestone tires replaced. Even though they were not under the recall, Cesta said she wanted to play it safe because of her children and because the family was getting ready to take a trip.
    photo
    [Courtesy of Kantor family]
    Claire Kantor was 19 when she died after the passenger-side rear tire shredded on a friend's 1998 GMC Suburban on I-75 in Manatee County last year.
    photo
    [Courtesy of Kantor family]
    The Kent family, parents Deirdre and Erik, and their daughters Kerren and Kirsten, pose in a photo taken New Year's Eve 1999 in the Florida Keys, the night before Kirsten died
    photo
    [AP 2000]
    Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, testifies before the Senate on the Firestone recall. Claybrook says the recall is insufficient.

    printer version

    Suspect tires still on road

    Firestone has not recalled millions of other tires that may be flawed. In Florida, 11 people have died while riding on them.

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times staff writer

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 21, 2001


    When Firestone recalled millions of tires last year, the company reassured customers that the move would fix a deadly problem.

    But what the public has not been told is that the company has not recalled millions of other Firestone tires still on the road, tires that may suffer from the same flaws that caused tread separations on those recalled last year.

    In Florida alone, a St. Petersburg Times analysis found, 11 people have been killed since 1997 in Ford sport utility vehicles equipped with Firestone tires that the company says are safe.

    Some are the same size and design as those that were recalled, but they were manufactured in plants not subject to the recall. Some are the same design but slightly smaller. Others are equivalent to recalled tires -- but they were not recalled because they were used on vehicles no longer produced, even though the vehicles remain on the highways.

    Some of the suspect tires were even installed on vehicles as replacement tires after last summer's voluntary recall.

    Firestone officials say the tires still on the road are safe and even question whether the company recalled more tires than necessary last year.

    "Tires can fail," Firestone spokeswoman Jill Bratina said. "Just because a tire fails doesn't mean it's defective."

    Ford officials wouldn't comment other than to say they were surprised at the high number of accidents the Times documented in Florida involving non-recalled tires and Explorers or Bronco IIs.

    The federal agency responsible for regulating the auto industry has not taken any action.

    The inquiry by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration into 33-million more Firestone tires just entered its second year, but those familiar with the federal agency do not think it will do anything.

    The highway agency has been stripped of its money, employees and power over the past three decades, leaving behind an inconsequential group that has little authority over big business.

    As vacation season kicks off with the coming Memorial Day weekend, advocates and scientists worry that Florida's soaring temperatures will lead to another summer of tragic accidents.

    "The problem definitely extends beyond what has been recalled," said lawyer Steve Pajcic, whose Jacksonville firm represents victims in more than a dozen cases against Ford and Firestone. "They're trying to reassure people that it's only certain tires under certain conditions. That's just not the case."

    'All fail exactly the same way'

    The nation's worst auto safety crisis rocked Firestone, one of the most trusted names in tires. The company took hits in the media, lost millions of dollars and suffered from a lack of confidence with the American people.

    After it was revealed that Firestone tires were replaced overseas but not in the United States, the tiremaker set out to repair its image.

    "At Firestone, your safety is our highest priority," a company spokesman said in a television ad. "Let me assure you that we are committed to your safety and to resolving this issue."

    What has gone mostly unreported is that at every turn since, the company has fought efforts to recall millions more tires that consumer advocates and scientists think are just as dangerous.

    The recall "is insufficient," said Joan Claybrook, head of Ralph Nader's consumer group, Public Citizen, which has monitored the Ford-Firestone debacle. "It's just not enough."

    Advocates are aggressively lobbying the government to expand the recall, which could include 33-million similar tires still on the road and under investigation by the federal highway agency.

    Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, whose office is preparing to sue Firestone and Ford for misleading consumers, has warned Floridians to consider whether to keep the Firestone tires that are on their vehicles.

    The Times conducted an analysis of six years of state accident reports, federal government crash data and court documents, and interviewed victims and lawyers in the first comprehensive look at the toll in Florida.

    The study documented 41 deaths that can be attributed to the combination of sport utility vehicles and Firestone tires. Of those deaths, 11 were in accidents that involved tires that were not part of the recall.

    The total number of deaths in Florida 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.

    Whether or not the tires were part of the recall, the circumstances of every crash were nearly the same: The tread on a rear tire peeled off at highway speeds on sunny, warm days, causing an already unstable vehicle to roll over. In some accidents, drivers could hear a thumping noise. In others, there was no warning at all.

    Last summer, longtime partner Ford urged Firestone to replace 14.4-million tires on sport utility vehicles and trucks: ATXs and ATX IIs manufactured in North America and Wilderness ATs manufactured in Decatur, Ill.

    More than 6-million of those tires have been replaced since Aug. 9. Firestone says most of the remaining recalled tires are not in use.

    Luzmila Garzon's Ford Explorer was equipped with Wilderness ATs -- manufactured in Wilson, N.C. Her family was cruising along Florida's Turnpike on Feb. 13, 2000, when the passenger side rear tire came apart at 80 mph. The vehicle spun and flipped, pinning Garzon underneath.

    The 49-year-old Miami mother of three was killed.

    Scientists say speed combined with heat causes these tires to heat up to more than 200 degrees and disintegrate, frequently causing the vehicle to flip.

    "All fail exactly the same way," said Dick Baumgardner, who worked as an engineer for a tire company before becoming president of Tire Consultants in Georgia.

    Auto safety experts are most concerned about the 5.6-million ATs made in North America, most in Wilson, N.C., and Joliet, Quebec, because the design and the materials are the same as the recalled tires made in Decatur.

    Sanjay Govindjee, an engineering expert hired by Firestone, found that where the tire was manufactured did not matter; complaints were high at all plant locations. His review showed that the rate of warranty claims for some recalled tires was the same as for some tires that were not recalled.

    "It is the material and not where the tire is made," said Rex Grogan, who worked for the tire industry for years before opening a tire consulting business in England. "(The tires) share the same material."

    Six people in Florida were killed in four accidents that occurred in Explorers equipped with tires from Wilson.

    That includes a mother, her son and a friend who were driving to Disney World in July 1999. The driver side rear tire shredded while traveling at 70 mph on Florida's Turnpike in Osceola County, causing the 1997 Explorer to roll several times.

    Erik and Deirdre Kent's two daughters also had non-recalled AT tires on their Mercury Mountaineer when a rear tire came apart on Interstate 75 in Sarasota on Jan. 1, 2000.

    The 1997 sport utility vehicle, made by Ford, flipped. Kirsten, 20, a Harvard University sophomore who planned to devote her life to helping autistic children, was killed.

    "If we knew, we would have gotten new tires," Deirdre Kent said. "We are angry that not only our daughter had to die, but other people had to die too."

    The Kents received settlements from Ford and Firestone, some of which helped to fund a scholarship in their daughter's memory, but still are frustrated that the companies have not solved all of the problems.

    "They haven't done anything," Erik Kent said. "It's horrendous."

    When the recall was announced, Dean Schreiner went to a Firestone dealer to replace the recalled tires on his family's 1999 Explorer. The only replacement tires that Firestone would give him at no cost were non-recalled AT tires -- the same model and size as those he traded in, but made at a different plant. He said he didn't use the vehicle much while he waited two months for his replacement tires to arrive.

    "I couldn't imagine they would replace them with the same tires," said Schreiner, 46, of Fort Myers. "It's always in the back of my mind, but what's the chance that I have the magic combination with as many vehicles as they have and as many tires as they have?"

    Firestone acknowledges that mistakes were made in tread design and tire manufacturing at the Decatur plant. But Bratina, the Firestone spokeswoman, said those problems have been fixed and the tires still on the road are safe.

    The ATX, produced between 1991 and 2000, is no longer made. The AT, manufactured since 1996, is still in production, though a crucial adhesive material will not be produced at the plant in Decatur until the method is tested further.

    "We recognize that there were some issues," Bratina said. "Accidents happen for a number of reasons. But you cannot come to the conclusion that all the tires are defective and need to be recalled."

    The Times analysis found that tires considered equivalent to ATs -- though different models -- also have failed over the years.

    Three fatal accidents in the state involved tires on Bronco IIs, the popular SUV that predates the Explorer. They were equipped with tires that were the predecessor to the AT model.

    Firestone says its data shows that the failure rate for non-recalled tires is no higher than that of the recalled tires. Because the failure rates are nearly the same, Firestone officials question whether the company needed to recall as many tires as it did.

    "They (non-recalled tires) rate well as far as what we can see," Bratina said.

    All the tires that Firestone recalled in the United States are 15-inch, but the 16-inch tires might have the same faults as the recalled tires. Ford replaced thousands of 16-inch tires in the Middle East, Asia and South America in 1999 and 2000.

    Claire Kantor's parents think those 16-inch tires caused her death last year.

    The 19-year-old Florida State University student and her sorority sisters were headed south after spring break in St. Petersburg.

    Seymour and Jill Kantor were relieved to hear that their daughter would be coming home in a friend's sport utility vehicle they thought would protect her in a crash.

    On Interstate 75 in Manatee County, the passenger side rear tire shredded, causing the 1998 GMC Suburban to veer into the median and flip twice. Kantor, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the vehicle and killed.

    "The tires were not the same as the ones that were recalled but ... it was essentially the same," said Jill Kantor, who has sued Firestone. "It was just so unreal, so unbelievable that there was an inherent problem with the tire."

    Bratina said 16-inch tires do not have the same problems as the smaller tires. Besides, she said, only a small number of those tires -- which are designed to carry larger loads and be used off-road -- are still in use.

    Last September, the federal government urged Firestone to recall another 1.4-million tires: 15- and 16-inch ATs, ATXs and ATX IIs it describes as dangerous.

    Firestone refused.

    'The agency is starving'

    Because the company has refused to voluntarily expand its recall, consumer advocates are looking to the federal government to order a recall.

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that another 33-million tires could be dangerous.

    Since the investigation began in May 2000, 12 people have been killed in Florida and another 59 injured, but the agency has taken no action.

    "I don't anticipate anything coming out of it," Bill Frates, a Vero Beach lawyer who sued Ford and Firestone, said about the government's investigation. "If they were going to do anything, they would have already done it."

    Consumer advocates say the agency suffers from multiple flaws that have limited its inquiry: The agency ignored Ford-Firestone problems for years; it used 30-year-old auto standards; it never developed a test to check vehicles for their tendency to flip.

    "The agency is starving," said Claybrook, who headed the highway agency in the 1970s and oversaw the recall of 14.5-million Firestone tires in 1978. "It's an agency in poverty."

    In the wake of the Ford-Firestone scandal, Congress gave the agency $9-million to spend on investigations and the authority to find out about overseas recalls. But even though the agency pledged to Congress that the investigation would be its top priority, only six of its 600 employees are investigating the Ford-Firestone accidents full time.

    "There are legitimate reasons why they haven't done some things," said Sean Kane, a partner at Strategic Safety, a research company that has studied the scandal. "They are so overwhelmed. What they are doing is an enormous amount of work."

    The agency has been relying on wrong numbers, highway agency spokeswoman Liz Neblett acknowledges. That's because the agency can receive dozens of reports about one accident and count each as a separate incident. Then again, other accidents go unreported.

    The highway agency estimates that 174 people died throughout the nation in these accidents. The Times' study documented 41 deaths in Florida alone, far more than reported by the federal agency, and consumer groups think the government has vastly underestimated the death toll everywhere.

    "They're as accurate as we can get them," Neblett said. "If there are more out there, we'd like to know about them. We don't know who's missing.

    President Bush has not filled the agency's top two positions, administrator and deputy administrator, since taking office in January. Ken Weinstein, who heads the Office of Defects Investigations, would not talk to the Times.

    "The investigation is ongoing to try to determine if the scope of the current recall is correct," Neblett said. "We want to make sure that Firestone covers all the safety issues."

    Lawyers who have lost faith in the highway agency have turned to a federal judge for help.

    In a federal class-action lawsuit against Ford and Firestone filed in Indiana, lawyers have asked U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker to expand the recall by at least 3-million tires.

    "Unfortunately the recall did not go far enough," the lawyers told the judge. "Evidence ... shows that other Firestone tire sizes and models in the same family of tires ... suffer from the same defects and have the same dangerous propensity to fail as the recalled tires. Yet millions of these dangerous Firestone tires remain on the road."

    The motion, filed in January, asks Barker to recall all tires that "share the same design and manufacturing defects" as the recalled ones and tires put on vehicles as replacements last year that are not equipped with features that prevent tread separation.

    Ford, which has refused to comment publicly on the possibility of an expanded recall, has recently begun to pressure Firestone to expand its recall, according to news reports last week.

    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.

    Meanwhile, Firestone is arguing that a judge does not have the authority to administer a recall.

    Barker has yet to rule.

    Even those who want more tires off the road say it would be a rare step for a judge to order a recall.

    "It hasn't happened much in the past," said David Steelman, of the Attorney Exchange Group, an Alabama organization that helps attorneys share information. "But there hasn't been a situation like this in the past."

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