SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- South Bend mother Ana Maria Piña was rear-ended on U.S. 30 while driving her 2000 Jeep Cherokee back in 2012. The tragedy that happened next would change the course of her life and forge her mission to save others from the same fate.
“I had just a normal life with my kids,” Ana Piña said. “I am the mom of three kids.”
Ana, 17, and 6-year-old twins Isabella and Mateo kept Piña busy. She was on her way to “Little Ana’s” dance competition in Munster with the twins and her mother when she was rear-ended by a truck on U.S. 30.
“Upon impact, my mom’s jeep burst into flames,” Ana said. “It was anywhere between 600 and 1000 degrees in this car with my mother my grandmother and my little brother and sister trapped in this car.”
Upon impact, the Jeep’s doors jammed shut, leaving Piña and the rest of the occupants trapped inside the burning car. They were alert but unable to escape the fiery inferno that was their Jeep Cherokee.
The kids suffered some bruises and burns -- Isabella’s were worse than her brother’s. But the most intense flames were concentrated in the driver’s seat.
Paramedics found Piña unresponsive, her body seared with second and third degree burns. She slipped into a coma and awoke to a new life.
“Honey, I am burned?” Piña asked the nurse in the hospital. “And she said ‘Yes, you are, honey, but you are okay.”
But Piña was not okay. She suffered agonizing burns to 40 percent of her body. Doctors couldn’t save her ears, part of her nose and the tips of her fingers.
Today, she’s covered with skin grafts and scars. But more than two years after the accident, she still feels the sensation of burning.
Ana says the worst part was losing her identity.
“If they wouldn’t have told me that it was my mother, I would not have known it was my mom,” Piña’s daughter, Ana, said. “Like, it was still my mom and it was still her personality and it was still her voice and everything but my mom was never going to be the same.”
Piña said the crash took everything from her -- for a time, even her motherhood. Unable to care for herself, she lost custody of her twins for a year and a half.
But more than two years after the accident, Ana’s story has only just begun.
“For the rest of her life she will incur, in addition to the millions of dollars shes already incurred in medical bills, she will continue to incur astronomical costs in medical care,” said Ines Murphy, Piña’s attorney. “And we're talking millions of dollars. Who’s gonna pay for that?”
She requires a constant stream of dozens of costly medications. And because of her injuries, she’ll never work again.
But what was even more disturbing than adjusting to her life-long battle with pain, Ana said, was learning that her fiery jeep crash was no anomaly.
According to a lengthy investigation by the Center for Auto Safety -- crashes like Piña’s go back to the 1990’s, although many of her peers were not as lucky to survive.
According to the DC-based consumer advocacy group, as of July 1, there have been at least “370 fatal fire crashes of 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, 1933-2001 Jeep Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys that have resulted in 503 deaths, at least 167 of which are deaths due to fire.”
While crash records differ between organizations, according National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatal Analysis Crash System (FARS) data, known fatal fire deaths have surpassed 70.
Chrysler points out that the these are total cases. The Office of Defects Investigation says that as of June 2013, there had been at least 32 crashes and 44 deaths when it comes to fatal rear impact fire crashes involving Grand Cherokees. They also identified 5 fatal rear impact crashes that resulted in 7 deaths in Libertys.
But Ana says she didn’t know about the risk of fiery rear-end crashes, until it was too late.
“This changed all my live this changed a lot of things, a lot of things,” she said. “A lot of lives. It’s not fair.”
Stories like Piña’s have resulted in a tumultuous recall investigation involving Chrysler, The Center for Auto Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other auto safety advocates.