Fires, deaths continue more than a year after recall of Jeeps with gas tanks behind rear axle

Energy Associated Press

As Kayla White slowed her SUV behind two other cars to exit a suburban Detroit freeway on Veterans Day, it was rammed from behind by a Cadillac STS. Her red 2003 Jeep Liberty bounced off a Nissan in front of it, rolled onto its side and exploded in flames.

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Other drivers ran to help but were forced back by the heat. Firefighters arrived in just three minutes but were too late. White, a 23-year-old restaurant hostess who was eight months pregnant, died of burns and smoke inhalation.

White is one of more than 70 people killed in fires involving older Jeeps with plastic fuel tanks mounted behind the rear axle.

Fiat Chrysler, which makes Jeeps, recalled 1.56 million of them in June 2013 under pressure from U.S. safety regulators. But only 12 percent of the SUVs have been repaired in the 18 months since the recall, a much slower pace than usual. And White's Jeep was not among those fixed.

Last week, prosecutors charged the Cadillac driver with committing a moving violation that caused a death. But safety advocates and the lawyer for White's family say the blame belongs as much, if not more, on Chrysler and an auto-industry safety system that moves too slowly to prevent tragedy.

The rear-mounted tanks have little structure to protect them if struck from behind, making them susceptible to punctures and fires. Moving the gas tank in front of the axle would be expensive and difficult. So Chrysler's remedy involved installing trailer hitches on the rear of the Jeeps as an extra layer of protection.

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Government testing showed the hitches protected the tanks in crashes up to 40 mph when stationary Jeeps were hit from behind. But at higher speeds, they wouldn't help.

White tried to get the repair done a few weeks before her death but was told by a Jeep dealer that parts weren't available, according to Gerald Thurswell, her family's lawyer. He wouldn't identify the dealership, and his contention could not be independently verified by The Associated Press.

Thurswell contends the gas tank ruptured, spilling fuel that touched off the fire.

A Chrysler spokesman expressed sympathy to White's family but said the company had no written proof that she asked a dealer about the recall.

Two crash reconstruction experts interviewed by the AP say gas wouldn't have spilled from White's Jeep if the tank had been mounted in front of the rear axle. Both say a hitch might have prevented the tank from being damaged, but because both vehicles were in motion, neither expert could say for sure.

Jessica Cooper, the prosecutor in suburban Oakland County, says the Cadillac driver, Clarence Heath, wasn't speeding, meaning he was driving 70 mph or less. One of the other drivers involved in the accident told the AP that the vehicles ahead of Heath were going about 50 mph.

Other Jeep owners have reported difficulties in getting repairs done. Since the recall was announced, more than 840 people complained to the government that Chrysler dealers didn't have hitches available, according to an AP review of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration database. Some complaints came as recently as December and January.

As of Jan. 14, Chrysler had repaired only 12 percent of the Jeeps — despite two letters from NHTSA demanding faster action. That leaves more than 1.3 million Jeeps still on the road with gas tanks in a vulnerable position.

Chrysler acknowledges that it normally completes 78 percent of repairs in 18 months. The company is offering Jeep owners free oil changes and $150 gift cards for parts and accessories as an incentive to get a hitch. But Chrysler cautions that in recalls such as this, owners can be harder to find because the vehicles are up to 22 years old

Reports of Jeep fires started in the late 1990s, but NHTSA didn't start investigating until more than a decade later, in the summer of 2010. Three years later, the agency sought a recall of 2.7 million older-model Jeep Grand Cherokees and Libertys — some dating back to the 1993 model year — after finding 51 fire-related deaths. That number was later raised to 75.

But Chrysler resisted, and the company sent data to NHTSA showing that 24 comparable SUVs made by other automakers had higher rates of fire deaths in rear-end crashes. Both sides agreed that Chrysler would recall 1.56 million of the Jeeps. The remaining 1.2 million would get inspections and perhaps no repairs at all.

"This is the recall Chrysler never wanted to do," says Clarence Ditlow, head of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, whose 2009 petition prompted NHTSA to start its investigation. "The minimum amount that we've gotten to date has been dragging, kicking and screaming."

According to a document submitted to regulators in 2012, Chrysler has faced more than 40 lawsuits and legal claims over the Jeeps, settling many out of court. A lawyer in one of the cases even warned NHTSA of the Jeep problem in a 2003 letter, after settling with Chrysler.

Thurswell, the White family lawyer, says he plans to sue Chrysler. He says the recall notice from Chrysler gives no sense that "your car could explode and you could be burned to death."

In the recall notice, Chrysler says there is a chance the fuel tank can leak in certain rear-end collisions. Further, it says, "Fuel leakage in the presence of an ignition source can result in a fire."

Ditlow says six people, including White, have died since the recall was announced.

For its part, NHTSA says it typically watches complaint data and crash reports to make sure a recall is working. In the Jeep case, the agency has no evidence that the trailer hitches aren't working, a spokesman says. It has no reports of fires or deaths in Jeeps with the hitches.

When White's crash happened, she was heading to her evening-shift job at an Italian restaurant. Yan Bai was two cars ahead when White's Jeep pushed the Nissan into the back of Bai's SUV. Bai got out and saw the Jeep in flames, and knew someone was trapped inside.

"That was something really horrible to watch," says Bai, who estimates she was traveling 50 mph or a little less before the crash.

No one else was seriously hurt. Police say Heath, 70, told them he wasn't paying attention.

Heath had no alcohol in his system and wasn't texting or distracted by his cellphone, says Cooper, the prosecutor. He faces up to a year in jail. Cooper says White's "horribly tragic" death was the result of Heath's careless driving.

But Douglas Hampton, Heath's attorney, isn't so sure. He has more investigating to do but will probably argue that White's death was caused by the vulnerable fuel tank and that Heath shouldn't be charged with causing her death.

"If it wasn't for the gas tank, that would be an appropriate charge," Hampton says.

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AP writer Mike Householder contributed to this report.