Last night on Anderson Cooper 360, Susan Candiotti did a report on collision fires that have occurred with certain Ford models…
CNN national correspondent Susan Candiotti interviewed families of victims of Ford fuel tank fires, a lawyer who prosecuted one of these cases and the foreman of a jury which ultimately ruled against Ford, awarding nearly $44 million. Ford has appealed the case, claiming the company did not get a fair trial.
According to CNN’s reporting, the Ford Motor Company designed and manufactured a shield that has reduced the incidence of fires when the vehicles are hit from behind. Despite a number of deaths, the shield has been installed only on police vehicles and only recently has been made available to limousine manufacturers. Ford says the $100 shield is not necessary for so-called “civilian” vehicles, since the vehicles are not used like police cars, which are often stopped adjacent to moving traffic. CNN’s reporting shows that while Ford says vehicle owners may go to a local dealer and pay to have a fuel tank shield kit installed, Ford has not alerted owners about the shield. The transcript follows below.
From CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360
Aired January 23, 2006
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, today’s news that Ford will layoff up to 30,000 employees comes as new questions arise about three of its most popular cars. They’re the only American-made automobiles with the fuel tank right behind the rear axle. Now, in an award-winning documentary three years ago, CNN’s Susan Candiotti reported on dangers that rear end fuel tank fires pose to police in such cars.
Well, after the deaths of a dozen police officers, Ford made changes to the cars but only in the cars used by law enforcement. For a little more $100 it could have done the same to millions of other cars on the road. But Ford decided not to. The question is why? And would lives have been saved if they did?
CNN’s Susan Candiotti has more on an investigation you will only see here on CNN.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They had a glow about them. They were beautiful.
SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Three sisters, all young, two of them new mothers, left in a limousine for a rock concert at Greensboro, North Carolina. They never got home. Caught in a traffic jam, their limo was rammed from behind by a pickup truck going well over the speed limit.
JAMES CANADY, LIMOUSINE DRIVER: I saw flames shooting past my window. And I said oh, my God, we’re on fire.
CANDIOTTI: Limo driver James Canady had to kick his door open.
CANADY: The whole vehicle was on fire. As soon as I jumped out of the car, I heard one of the ladies scream, oh, my God. And that’s all I heard and that was it.
CANDIOTTI: The sisters were trapped in the back, the fire too fierce for anyone to reach them.
CANADY: You could see the fire just like gasoline just keep blowing up.
CANDIOTTI: The medical examiner ruled all three sisters burned to death, even though only one was injured by the crash impact.
Yet the fire might have been avoided. Why? Ford, which designed their vehicle, already had made fixes around the gas tanks in its police cars. The stretch limo was a Lincoln Town Car. As in Canady’s own Town Car, you can see where the fuel tank sticks up in the trunk.
(on camera): Only three American automobiles, all made by Ford, the Crown Victoria, Lincoln Town Car and Mercury Marquis, still have their gas tanks this far back behind the rear axle in that trunk area, touching off a safety debate that started long before the sisters died.
(voice-over): Since the early ’90s at least a dozen police officers, among them this Arizona Highway patrolman, were burned to death when the Crown Victoria cruisers were hit from behind and the gas tanks went up in flames. Three years ago, under pressure by several police departments…
SUSAN CISCHKE, FORD V.P. FOR SAFETY: We’ve shielded some components that are mounted on the axle.
CANDIOTTI: … Ford made safety changes to put rubber and plastic shields on sharp parts around the tank in the patrol cars. They’re now standard equipment when the police cars come off the assembly line.
Watch this. A cop car crash in Chicago. This is a success story. The shields worked. The officer lived. Look again. Since the changes to vehicles like this, no one has burned to death because of a puncture in a police car with the new gas tank shields.
Yet, back in 2002, when Ford was asked if everyday drivers would get the same protection, Ford said their cars were already safe, this at a news conference announcing the shields for police.
CISCHKE: … it’s not necessary for the civilians because they don’t use their vehicles like the police do.
CANDIOTTI: The explanation, police cars are stopped alongside the road and, thus, exposed to on-rushing traffic far more often than the rest of us.
CISCHKE: If there’s anybody that feels that they use their vehicle like the police, we can make the kit available to them at their cost. But we don’t think it’s necessary.
CANDIOTTI: So Ford never notified its car owners they could ask for the shields at a cost of only $100 or so, if they went to their dealers. Ricky and Brenda Howell’s daughters died one year after that Ford decision.
RICKY HOWELL, VICTIMS’ FATHER: They’re set in steel just like a patrol car sitting in traffic.
CANDIOTTI: Under oath this past fall, Ford acknowledged the limo’s gas tank was pierced by a bolt that would have been covered if the limo had the rubber shields.
BRENDA HOWELL, VICTIMS’ MOTHER: They could fix the cars. They just didn’t see why it needed to be done. I mean, and in our case, it proves it did need to be done.
CANDIOTTI: Last fall, Ford offered limousine makers the shields, without charge. No such offer, though, was made for the regular car models. Ford says its cars, some 3 million of these Crown Vic, Town Car, and Mercury Marquis models already meet all the highest federal safety standards in 50 mile-an-hour crash tests like this.
In 2002, the Federal Highway Safety Agency did find in fatal crashes from all angles, these Ford vehicles did have a lower rate of fire than other sedans in general. But in fires in rear end crashes only, it said Ford did not fare as well as similar sized GM models.
Ford blamed the sisters’ deaths in North Carolina on the pickup driver who was drunk and is now in prison. Even so, Ford did decide to settle with the victim’s families last week before trial. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
Ford went to trial last spring in another Town Car crash, and lost in a big way. This fire killed an elderly man whose regular Lincoln sedan was hit from behind at 60 miles an hour in a traffic backup on a bypass east of St. Louis.
Lawyer Brad Lakin cut a Town Car open to show the jury what happened.
BRADLEY LAKIN, VICTIMS’ LAWYER: Right here is the fuel tank which is right here behind what they call the deep well trunk.
CANDIOTTI: Lakin said the crash hurled a large wrench in that trunk through the gas tank.
LAKIN: There’s a very thin, as you can see, back wall to the trunk, and this padding, and that’s the only protection in terms of any items coming through and actually puncturing the fuel tank itself.
CANDIOTTI: The driver, John Jablonski, died from burns in a hospital the next night. His widow Dora survived the fire at a terrible price. The jury was shown this video of her now in a nursing home.
EDWARD FRIEDEL, JURY FOREMAN: Her ears were pretty well gone. Her nose. And it took a lot of courage for her to come into the courtroom because the first words out of her mouth was that she knows she looks hideous.
CANDIOTTI: Back when Ford offered police the shields, it also came up with a special trunk pack to store objects that could puncture a gas tank. As for everyday drivers, again, Ford sent them no information.
FRIEDEL: I felt Ford could have prevented most all of this with a 37 cent stamp.
CANDIOTTI: As in the North Carolina fire, Ford said the other driver was at fault. She was ticketed for failure to slow down before the crash. Edward Friedel, a delivery driver, became the jury foreman. He said when the jury went out, at first it was slow going. Then…
FRIEDEL: One juror just blurted out, does anybody feel that Ford did something wrong? And that’s when unanimously everybody said, yes, they withheld the truth.
CANDIOTTI: The verdict against Ford, almost $44 million in damages for Mrs. Jablonski. Ford is appealing, arguing it did not get a fair trial. The company declined to be interviewed on camera for the story. But last fall, again under oath, Ford’s top safety official did say nothing has changed in her thinking. She still does not recommend the police car safety fixes for the everyday driver.
R. HOWELL: She don’t know the pain we feel right now. This could have been prevented. We know that. (END VIDEOTAPE)
CANDIOTTI: We asked the Federal Highway Safety Agency what it’s doing in this matter. A spokesman says they’re keeping an eye on it, but have no plans to open any investigation. The government spokesman calls the question of shields for everyday drivers a consumer issue, between the car owner and the manufacturer.
If you have a Town Car, Crown Victoria, or Mercury Marquis, this covers all model years going back as far as 1992. Ford says you can order the shields if you want through your local dealership — Anderson.
COOPER: An amazing report. For little more than $150, parts and labor, your car can have the protection Ford offers to police. You can get the part at your Ford dealer. The issue, Ford hasn’t told you about it.
Next on 360, we’ll tell you about this device, it’s right here, we have one, that some believe could prevent deaths by reducing the chance of fire.
And later, return to Melville, West Virginia, another week, another mining tragedy. There is new legislation passed today. But why does it take the blood of miners to pass better safety laws? Tonight, we examine the facts.
And a special program note, we want to remind you Dr. Sanjay Gupta wants to hear from you. Got a medical question, want to know what’s fact and fiction? We’ll report on some of your questions next week. E-mail us by logging on to cnn.com/360. Please put “Ask Dr. Gupta” on the subject line.
360 continues in a moment.
COOPER: Before the break we told you about three American-made cars and the hidden dangers that some believe they pose to drivers and passengers. We’re talking about the Crown Victoria, the Mercury Marquis, and the Lincoln Town Car. All three are built by the Ford Motor Company.
And what makes them unusual is that the fuel tanks are located right behind the rear axle. Now there are allegations that a rear end collision can rupture the tanks, creating a fire that could engulf the care within seconds.
There is a fuel tank shield kit. However, we called a half dozen Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealers in major metropolitan areas to find out if we could purchase the fuel tank shield kit and have it installed. Only three of the six dealers we called even knew the shield existed or what we were talking about. We did buy a kit from a dealer on Long Island. This is what it looks like right here.
It costs $117.56, that plus the cost of about an hour’s labor to install it. And these are two large pieces. These are placed on either side of the gas tank to protect it from anything sharp. And then there’s this small horseshoe rubber piece right here which would have covered the bolt that punctured the gas tank in the limo fire that killed three sisters. CNN’s Susan Candiotti joins me again.
Susan, I understand that many of these rear end crashes do happen at high speeds well over the limit. And Ford says that any car’s fuel tank might fail on some of these high force impact regardless of where the tank is located. Is that true?
CANDIOTTI: Sure, let me get to that in just a second here. First, I want to give you a quick look at the trunk itself. We took out the padding so you can get a better look at it. It’s behind the rear axle, as you pointed out. This is the fuel tank right there. And it’s right behind the back seat.
Now, Anderson, you asked about those high speed crashes. And I do want to correctly point out to you that you have to remember two or three things about this. First of all, for years the Federal Highway Safety Agency only required a car’s gas tank hold up under a 35 mile- an-hour impact. Now that standard has gone up to 50 miles an hour.
But when Ford designed these shields for police cars, Ford tested them at 75 miles an hour. And the company says the tanks remained intact. So the shields do work for the cop cars even in some of the worst crash scenarios. All the more reason one would think to share with the rest of us.
COOPER: So for whoever might want to get one of these kits, does Ford have a Web site, is there an 800 number, how do you get them?
CANDIOTTI: Well, Ford does have one site, www.customeraskford — it’s all one word, .com, where you can type in any kind of troubleshooting question. And that is manned by real people 24 hours a day. Now, if your dealer doesn’t know about this, then I would suggest that you start there.
COOPER: And as I said, we called six dealers. Three of them didn’t know what we were talking about. Susan Candiotti, thanks very much.