13 Investigates: Recall under fire

NHTSA chief: Jeep recall required "pushing, prodding, threats" against Chrysler

NHTSA chief: Jeep recall required "pushing, prodding, threats" against Chrysler

Greg Burgett’s Grand Cherokee caught fire after a rear-impact crash on I-465. Burgett suffered serious burns.

Federal regulators asked Chrysler to recall millions of Jeeps for a potentially deadly defect. The automaker declined, instead offering a much different recall with a controversial remedy. Following months of denials, confusion, finger-pointing and silence, are the automaker and government now turning their backs on a dangerous problem affecting millions of families?

Ana Piña does not remember her crash. She has no memory of the raging fire.  She cannot recall the dramatic rescue.

Her first memories following the devastating accident involve waking up from a long coma in hospital bed.

Nurses were hesitant to tell Piña why she was there.

"They kept saying ‘You are OK. You are fine. You are beautiful.' And I think to myself 'Why they saying that?'" she said.

Ana soon began to understand the extent of her injuries – and why nurses were trying to offer comforting words.

"When I saw me in the mirror [I] say ‘Where is Ana? Where is Ana? What happened to me?'" she recalls, pausing for a deep breath. As the silence continues, it is clear the South Bend mother is no longer thinking about her hospital stay. She is thinking about today, and she begins crying.

"Why that happen to me? Why?" she asks.

Terrible scars

Police reports, family members and witnesses fill in the details of a horrible crash that erased much of Piña's memory.

On the day of the accident, she was driving to Munster, Ind., to watch her oldest daughter's first dance competition. Her mother was in the passenger seat, and Ana's 6-year-old twins were sitting behind them, strapped into their car seats.

They slowed for a passing funeral procession, but, according to police, the pick-up truck behind them did not.

Witnesses say Ana's 2000 Jeep Cherokee immediately burst into flames.

Passing motorists rescued the kids and Ana's mother, who escaped with relatively minor injuries.

But Ana suffered severe burns on 40 percent of her body. Doctors had to remove her ears, part of her nose, and the tips of all her fingers.

She is now covered with a patchwork of skin grafts and scars, and 20 months after the accident, Piña still feels a constant sensation of burning.

"Every day I feel on fire," she said. "It's so painful."

Piña considers herself lucky.

"People are burning to death"

Across the country, people have died in fiery crashes involving Jeeps like Ana's.

"As soon as these vehicles went on the road, they started crashing and burning," said Clarence Ditlow, longtime director of the Center for Auto Safety.    

The non-profit consumer safety organization says it has tracked more than 475 deaths involving older model Jeeps dating back to 1993.  

Among the tragic crashes:

*  Remington Walden, 4, died in the backseat of a 1999 Jeep Cherokee March 6, 2012 in Bainbridge, Georgia.  His aunt was driving him to tennis lessons when she stopped to turn left and a Dodge Dakota slammed into the back of the SUV.  An attorney for Remi's family says his only injury from the impact itself was a broken leg.  Witnesses say he was screaming for help from his booster seat.

* Witness say they also saw and heard Acoye Breckenridge, 18, and Heather Santor screaming for help when flames spread quickly through Santor's 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee.   They were able to save Heather's son after a tractor-trailer hit the vehicle near Winchester, Virginia March 6, 2012.

*  Attorneys for Manuel Bringas-Mejia, 24, say his injuries from a rear-impact crash in Lake Mary, Florida were not life-threatening.  They say he was alive and moving after the crash, but he couldn't get out of the vehicle and died in the fire.  Manuel's cousin, Rafael Jaimes-Mejia, was driving the 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee and survived with serious burns.

CAS's extensive research and detailed appeals prompted the government to investigate the vehicles due to concerns over their gas tanks.

On millions of older Jeeps, the gas tank is located at the far rear of the SUV, behind the rear axle and just inches from the back bumper. Consumer advocates say the position of the gas tank puts the Jeeps at an increased risk of fire because the tanks are more vulnerable to punctures and leaks during a rear-impact crash. 

For years, CAS has been asking Chrysler and the government to do something about it.

"People are burning to death in Jeeps that need not burn to death in Jeeps," Ditlow said. "There is no question this should be recalled."

Victims' families have been begging for a recall, too.  They say even in high-speed crashes, people should be able to escape without catastrophic injuries.

But Ana's attorney says many crash victims cannot do that because they're trapped by a raging fire caused by a ruptured gas tank.

"Ana did not suffer a single broken bone, not one," said attorney Ines Murphy.  "She should have opened her door and walked out, but instead you're stuck in a burning car. This car is not safe and needs to be recalled."

Ana is still waiting for a recall on the Cherokee, but this summer, government regulators took action on two other Jeeps with gas tanks just like hers.

After a 3-year investigation confirmed at least 51 fatal rear-impact crashes involving fires in Jeeps, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration sent a letter to Chrysler with its preliminary findings.  It said the 1993-1998 Grand Cherokee and 2002-2007 Liberty are "poor performers" in terms of fatalities, fires and fuel leaks in rear-impact crashes. NHTSA concluded "there is a performance defect and a design defect" involving the Jeep gas tanks, and the federal agency formally requested a safety recall.

Chrysler's surprising response

Chrysler said no, declining NHTSA's request to recall 2.7 million Jeeps. 

The automaker sent federal regulators a detailed response, insisting the vehicles in question "are safe and do not contain a defect."  The company said the vehicles' performance is "reasonable and comparable" to other SUVs, according to federal crash data.  

Chrysler also told NHTSA most of the deadly fires included in the government's analysis resulted from crash forces that far exceeded the federal fuel leak standard in effect at the time the Jeeps were designed and manufactured.  According to Chrysler's analysis, the crash impact in many of the accidents was more than double the standard at which the government tests. 

Chrysler says the overall number of rear-impact fires involving deaths in Jeeps is tiny compared to the total number of Jeeps on the road. It also claims the government used flawed data analysis to reach its conclusions. (The Center for Auto Safety counters Chrysler's argument by claiming it is Chrysler that is manipulating data to reach conclusions favorable to the automaker and to bully government regulators.)

While Chrysler is allowed to challenge and even reject the government's request for a recall, it is the first time in recent memory that an automaker has done so.

Despite its claim that the vehicles are not defective, Chrysler did agree to a more limited recall of about 1.5 million older-model Jeep Grand Cherokees and Libertys. That recall involves a rather unusual remedy: installing a trailer hitch.

According to Chrysler, the hitch may provide more protection in the back of the vehicle to help better protect the gas tank.

Chrysler said it would begin contacting dealers and customers in July, but four months later, no one has heard anything about it.

WTHR employees who own Jeeps included in the limited recall have not received a recall notice from Chrysler.  One of the employees recently visited several local Jeep dealers to see if Chrysler has provided them with recall information.

"They haven't given us any details on it whatsoever," said a service technician at one of the dealerships.

"We have nothing yet," replied a service representative at another dealer.

"It's hard to ask Chrysler about it because they have not even admitted to the problem," said a technician at a third dealership. "So they're certainly not going to have a solution to a problem they haven't even confessed to. We don't even know if there's going to be a recall."

Chrysler won't meet with 13 Investigates to discuss its recall, but the automaker insists the recall is coming.  A company spokesman would not cite a specific timeframe, but he did send WTHR the following statement:

"Preparations continue to implement the announced actions, though the affected vehicles are not defective. Customers will be advised when to schedule vehicle inspections with their dealers."

Remedy called a "sham"

While Chrysler continues to disagree with the government's conclusion that some older Jeeps have a safety defect, critics say it's hard to ignore that an underlying problem still exists.

Here in Indianapolis, a 2002 Jeep Liberty burst into flames when it was rear-ended on I-465 in August – two months after Chrysler announced the vehicle was part of its limited recall.

The driver, Gregory Burgett, is still recovering from serious burns on his face, arms and hands. Gregory was surprised when 13 Investigates told him about the recall.

"I had no idea. I didn't know there was a problem," he told WTHR.

As customers and dealerships wait to find out when the recall will begin, the bigger question is whether it will do any good. Will a trailer hitch actually reduce injuries and deaths in Jeeps?

"No, it doesn't help. Everyone knows that," Murphy said. "Just look at Ana's crash. Ana's [Jeep] had a trailer hitch."

The Center for Auto Safety doesn't like Chrysler's proposed recall, either.

"The trailer hitch is a sham," said Ditlow.

He says it might actually make the problem worse, pointing to accidents like the one that killed 4-year-old Cassidy Jarmon and badly burned her sister.

When their mother's Jeep Grand Cherokee was rear-ended in Cleburne, Tex., police and Chrysler both concluded it was actually the vehicle's trailer hitch that punctured the gas tank, fueling a deadly fire.

"Cassidy Jarmon was burned to death in a child seat in a survivable rear impact … where there was a trailer hitch," Ditlow said. "That's proof positive that trailer hitches don't prevent fire deaths in these vehicles."

Chrysler admits recall limitations

A recent deposition by a former Chrysler engineer supports CAS's position that a trailer hitch may be a poor solution.

Francois Castaing, Chrysler's vice president for engineering in the 1990s, said that tow hitches are not intended to prevent damage to a vehicle's gas tank.

"The tow package does not protect the tank," he said in 2011. His testimony came in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Susan Kline, a New Jersey woman who died when her 1996 Grand Cherokee was rear-ended and caught fire in 2007.

WTHR asked Chrysler to explain how a trailer hitch would help prevent injuries or deaths related to rear-impact crashes. The automaker would not provide 13 Investigates with any on-the-record statement or information to answer our questions.

But in the automaker's public filings to NHTSA, Chrysler acknowledged the trailer hitch it is proposing will not help protect a Jeep's rear-mounted gas tank in the types of higher-speed crashes that have resulted in most of the deadly rear-impact fires.

"The trailer hitch cannot, and will not, mitigate the risk of the high energy rear collisions identified in your recall request letter," wrote Matthew Liddane, Chrysler's vice president of vehicle concepts. Chrysler told NHTSA the hitch might "better manage the crash forces" and "incrementally improve the performance" of Jeeps in low-speed crashes.

In other public filings, Chrysler argues that some of the deadly accidents involving Jeeps equipped with trailer hitches involve after-market hitches supplied by other manufacturers.

The recall Chrysler proposed to NHTSA includes inspection and, if necessary, replacement of after-market trailer hitches already installed on the designated vehicles. Chrysler says such hitches may have sharp edges or other features that could pose a puncture risk to the nearby gas tank on older model Jeeps.

Federal regulators now silent

The questionable ability of trailer hitches to reduce the number of deaths and injuries in rear-impact collisions has prompted consumer advocates to wonder why Chrysler's recall to add trailer hitches is happening at all.

CAS is urging NHTSA to further investigate Chrysler's proposal and to test the trailer hitch remedy to determine if it has any merit.  WTHR has repeatedly called NHTSA to determine if the federal agency will conduct those tests. Over the past four weeks, the agency has not returned any of 13 Investigates' phone calls, nor did it respond to WTHR's request for an on-camera interview.  

Sources close to the federal agency tell Eyewitness News NHTSA has not closed its investigation into safety concerns involving gas tanks on older Jeeps, and that future action – possibly another request for a Jeep recall – may be coming in the future.

In the meantime, crash victims like Ana Piña wonder why NHTSA and Chrysler are not doing more.

"I want them to take responsibility for all this … and recognize that the car has a problem," she said.

"Chrysler is just playing a game of smoke and mirrors on this and it makes no sense, and even worse people are dying and being severely burned in the meantime," said Ditlow. "Recall these vehicles and do the right thing before more people burn to death."

Safer options available?

While Chrysler's proposed recall is under fire, suggestions have emerged for what could be more effective solutions.

Changing the location of the gas tank is considered the best protection against a tank rupture during a rear-impact collision.

Chrysler has already made that change in all newer model Jeeps.  Grand Cherokees produced since model year 2005 and Libertys manufactured since model year 2008 now have fuel tanks placed in front of the vehicles' rear axle.

"Since then, there's not been a single known death due to fire in a rear-impact of the modified vehicles," said Ditlow. 

But because of the cost to retrofit older Jeeps with modified gas tanks, Chrysler is not likely to consider that a viable option.

A more cost-effective remedy could be what's referred to as a skid plate, a thick metal shield placed around a gas tank. It's intended to protect the fuel tank from rock damage during off-road excursions but can also provide puncture protection during a crash. Skid plates costs between $100 and $300, depending on the model.

Chrysler already offers standard or optional skid plate packages for most of its newer Jeeps, but so far the automaker has not proposed that as a remedy for the government's concern regarding vulnerable fuel tanks on older vehicles.

Links and resources:

Center for Auto Safety 

Oct. 2, 2009 – CAS Petitions NHTSA for fuel tank investigation

Dec. 13, 2012 – Chrysler's Response to NHTSA's request for Information

June 3, 2013 - NHTSA letter to Chrysler

June 4, 2013 - Chrysler white paper in response to NHTSA recall request

June 18, 2013 - Chrysler response to NHTSA recall request 

June 18, 2013 - Chrysler details recall plans

June 20, 2013 - Center for Auto Safety objects to Chrysler recall plans

Jeep Grand Cherokee recall petition

Limited recall of older-model Jeep Grand Cherokees and Libertys

Center for Auto Safety's white paper on concerns about Chrysler recall plans