South Bend, Ind. In millions of older Jeeps -- most of them built before the year 2005 -- the gas tank is located behind the rear axle of the SUV, just inches from the bumper.
While millions of those vehicles have driven safely on our nation’s roads for the past two decades, in a small number of cases, consumer advocates say the position of the fuel tank makes the cars more vulnerable to punctures and leaks that can lead to deadly fires.
Victims of these fiery rear-end collisions are scattered across the country, including Michiana.
South Bend mother Ana Maria Piña should have walked away from her rear-end collision on US 30 in 2012. Instead she’s spent the last two years of her life in agonizing pain after her car was ignited when the fuel tank ruptured.
“When I first met Ana, she is striking for all the wrong reasons unfortunately,” said Ines Murphy, Piña’s attorney. “And I think, just like anyone else who sees her on the street, you can’t help to wonder what horrible tragedy happened.”
She suffered severe burns to 40 percent of her body and lost her ears, part of her nose and the tips of her fingers.
But what’s even more painful for Ana is seeing other victims fall to the same fiery fate since her accident.
It wasn’t long before Ana would learn that her fiery nightmare had also been a reality for other Jeep owners.
Michiana residents in particular might be familiar with the nationally publicized Ford Pinto Trial in Elkhart that put the spotlight on fuel tanks in the “crush zone” of rear-end collisions.
That case was connected to a recall in 1978. The same year, an internal document addressed to Chrysler’s own chief safety engineer discussed the same fuel tank problem. It proposed the relocation of the fuel tank or creation of a protective structure around it.
“The Chrysler engineers are basically saying that we aren’t in much better shape than the Ford Pinto is in respect to crash worthiness of our rear mounted fuel tanks,” said Paul Sheridan, a former Chrysler manager.
Sheridan spent 11 years at Chrysler, heading up the company’s safety leadership.
Chrysler fired and sued Sheridan, alleging that he revealed confidential company information. Sheridan countered with a whistle blower lawsuit, claiming that he was fired for speaking out about safety issues.
Sheridan’s suit was dismissed and Chrysler’s was dropped. Now Sheridan works as a paid industry consultant, testifying in Jeep victim cases like Ana’s.
“The people who did not listen to the Baker memo were the Jeep side of the Jeep and Dodge truck organization,” Sheridan said.
For those models -- the tanks stayed behind the rear axle and fires ensued.
“The primary failure mode that makes the Jeeps more dangerous than the Pinto is the fact that the Jeep has a higher ride height and the under ride accident is so much more prevalent,” he said. “There’s no protection. An offending vehicle can make direct contact with the rear-mounted fuel tank.”
There were 254 fuel-fed fire deaths by the year 2009 according to a count by the Center for Auto Safety, a DC-based consumer advocacy group focused on the automotive industry.
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.
The CAS issued a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) asking for a defect investigation into the fuel tank design.
NHSTA conducted its own investigation, concluding in part that, “There is a performance defect and a design” that “...presents an unreasonable risk to the motor vehicle.”
In June 2013 NHSTA requested a safety recall on 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys.
But Chrysler initially declined.
“These Jeep vehicles have proven to be safe in operation,” the company said in a statement. “And the company’s analysis show the incidents at the focus of the request occur less than one time for every million years of vehicle operation.”
Chrysler said the investigation cited incomplete data sets and unrepresentative comparisons.
Many victims like Ana and their families were appalled.
“How? How do they not take the responsibility,” Piña said.
“She held up her amputated fingers and said Chrysler is telling you there’s no problem?” Murphy said. “Look at me, look at my hands, do you still believe that there is no problem?”
But the recall saga took another turn just two weeks later with a new statement from Chrysler:
“Chrysler Group LLC and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have resolved their differences in respect to NHTSA’s request to recall 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty vehicles,” the company said.
But it was a limited recall of about 1.5 million Jeeps, shy of the 2.7 million requested by NHSTA.
NHTSA never requested a recall of Ana Piña’s 2000 Cherokee, even though it has the same rear-mounted fuel tank design.
Piña says limiting the recall could result in thousands of lives that could end up like hers.
“I have a mission,” she said. “I have to tell them. That’s why I am here -- to talk to everybody. You know, to the world.”
Again, the current recall does not involve any Jeep models built in the last 7 or 8 years, only1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Libertys.
It’s been more than a year since that recall was issued. Find out what has -- or hasn’t -- been done since in Jeep Recall: Part 3.