Jeep Fire Advocacy Heats up While Investigation Stalls

How much is your conscience worth? Jenelle Embrey figures it at about $2,000 a month. That is roughly her monthly out-of-pocket cost for three billboards in the Frederick County, Virginia area, depicting a Jeep Grand Cherokee engulfed by flames and the plea: “Help Save Innocent Families Jeeps.”

The Linden, Virginia woman, who works as a medical transcriptionist and a bookkeeper, is hoping that the graphic depictions will drive motorists to sign her online petition at demanding that Chrysler recall the 1993 -2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees to correct a design that sites the plastic gas tank behind the rear axle, where it is vulnerable to fuel fires in rear-impact crashes. As of this morning, she had collected nearly 3,355 signatures.

 “I worked five years at my part time job, and I was at the point where I thought:  ‘It’s time to let go of the second job.’ Then the accident happened, and I said: ‘I’m going to hold on to it to fund my Jeep campaign,’” Embrey says. “It’s insane that they are still on the road. [Chrysler] knows they are faulty.”

The Jeep Grand Cherokees have been under the scrutiny of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since November 2009, when the Center for Auto Safety petitioned the agency to open an investigation into fuel-fed fires in Jeep Grand Cherokees from the 1992-2008 model years. The advocacy group charged that the plastic fuel tank’s placement behind the rear axle and below the rear bumper, and the lack of adequate shielding – similar in design to the infamous Ford Pinto – made it more vulnerable to rupture or leakage from rear-impacts and in rollovers. According to Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data, this design resulted in 172 fatal fire crashes with 254 fatalities, CAS said. The agency granted the CAS petition in August 2010, and opened a Preliminary Evaluation. In June 2012, ODI bumped up the investigation to an Engineering Analysis; it remains open.

Today, the Center for Auto Safety sent another letter to Chrysler Chairman Sergio Marchionne and John Elkann, Chairman of parent company, Fiat Spa, calling on the company to recall the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys. The letter was an emotional appeal, featuring the photos of toddlers and small children, who are among the occupants who have died in rear impact fire-involved crashes.  CAS cited 349 fatal fire crashes of 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys that have resulted in 478 deaths, at least 157 of which are deaths due to fire.

CAS Executive Director Clarence Ditlow points out in the letter that a design change moving the gas tank forward of the axle has had a significant impact: “There has not been a single confirmed fire death since Chrysler moved the fuel tanks from behind the rear axle in 2005 for the Grand Cherokee and 2008 for the Liberty,” the letter stated.

Embrey was called to this crusade by a shattering experience. On October 5, 2012, Embrey’s dad, Harry Hamilton Jr., invited her to take a ride to show off in his new PT Cruiser on Interstate 81. They were sitting in a traffic jam near Kearnstown, when they were rear-ended by a tractor trailer, driving the Chrysler into a guard rail. As Embrey and her father stood on the highway trying to recover from the shock of the crash, they noticed a Jeep across the road, with a small fire in the rear. Hamilton ran over and busted out a window, after discovering that the doors were jammed. He grabbed the first occupant he could reach, Zackary Santor, 18, and pulled him out of the window. Then Hamilton turned to a second boy, 18-year-old Acoye Breckenridge, but he was pinned under the collapsed rear seat, and could not unlatch his belt. He ran to the driver’s door to try and extract the driver, Heather Lee Santor, who seemed dazed by the crash.

“Then there was the noise. It was a gushing noise that brought fire… lots of fire,” writes Embrey on her petition.  “The entire vehicle was swallowed up by flames. At the moment the fire consumed the Jeep, the teen in the back was still hopeful of getting out, the Mom was still processing the wreck that had just happened, and the saved teen was still hopeful the three of them would be arriving home together that night, as planned. My Dad changed direction continuing to run but away from the blistering Jeep. In that instant, they burned to death. My Dad barely escaped the fire. Dad ran over to me shaking his head and said, in a heartbreaking tone, “That’s it. It’s over.” Dad and I stood in front of the Jeep and watched in horror as the Mom and teen burned to death. The saved teen watched the burning Jeep too as he tearfully screamed, “Mom! Mom!”

Santor, 39, and Breckenridge both of Staunton, Virginia, perished in the crash.

Embrey recalls a police officer at the scene surveying the wreckage and sighing “That’s the same kind of vehicle that burned up that family last year.”

On June 26, 2011, Mark and Amanda Roe, and their sons, 11-year-old Caleb and 4-year-old Tyler, died after their Jeep Cherokee burst into flames after it was rear-ended by a drunk driver at a light on Route 11 at Interstate 81. The fire killed Mark and Amanda Roe. Their sons died from blunt force trauma of the crash. It was a traumatic event for the Winchester community, and Embrey’s petition drive prompted comparisons from online signers, such as resident Linda Bynog:

“Nobody should have to endure such a preventable tragedy,” she wrote in her comments. “It’s criminal, and heartbreaking. I drive by the memorial for the Roe family every day. I’m thankful Ms. Embrey has the courage to stand up and speak out for those who can’t and try to prevent further senseless losses. Shame on Jeep for not taking action on their own.”

Three days after the crash, the officer’s comment propelled Embrey to do some research. When she discovered that the Jeep Grand Cherokee was under investigation for the crash-involved fuel fires, she was “very angry,” she recalled. It took another three months for Embrey to grapple with the emotional aftermath of the Santor crash and to decide that she would launch a petition to get the Jeep Grand Cherokee recalled. The petition went live in January. The billboards went up in April – just in time to be noticed by the 250,000 tourists who pour into Winchester in the northern Shenandoah Valley for the annual apple blossom festival.

While Embrey’s campaign has begun to attract media attention, the public file of ODI’s Engineering Analysis is stalled awaiting more data from other manufacturers for a peer vehicle analysis.

Chrysler’s main defenses have been statistical analyses that purport to show that the Jeeps are no more likely to catch fire in a rear impact than peer vehicles, and that the vehicle meet the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 301, Fuel System Integrity. The auto company reached this conclusion, submitted to ODI’s EA12-005 in December:

“After an exhaustive engineering analysis, Chrysler Group has found no evidence that the fuel systems in the Subject Vehicles are defective in either their design or manufacture. All of these vehicles exceeded the stringent requirements of the applicable FMVSS 301, the standard by which a fuel system design is evaluated in the United States. Moreover, a review of almost 30 years of internal field data revealed an extremely low number of rear impact crashes with fire or fuel leak that occurred in a fleet of over 5 million Subject Vehicles that have travelled over 500 billion miles over 50 million registered vehicle years. Finally, after studying a vast, 30 year collection of publicly available crash data, Chrysler Group has concluded that the rate of rear impact fires in the Subject Vehicles is statistically indistinguishable from comparable SUVs and other light-duty vehicles of a similar design. For these reasons, Chrysler Group believes are neither defective nor does the performance of their fuel systems in a rem· impact pose an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety.”

But others have looked at the data and have seen quite clearly that the Jeep Grand Cherokee is an outlier by a significant margin.

Ditlow included in his letter a graph included in a Chrysler presentation to NHTSA showing that the Grand Cherokee was 20 times more likely to be involved in a fatal rear-impact fire crash where fire was the most harmful event (MHE) than its closest competitor, the Ford Explorer. The graph showed that per million years of use, the Ford Explorer had one such crash, the Chevy S-10 Blazer 5, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee 12. Further, Ditlow said, this graph omitted three Jeep deaths from the total, making the Jeep 27 more times likely than the Explorer to be involved in a fatal rear-impact crash in which fire was the most harmful event.

Other internal Chrysler analyses found in filed court documents show, similarly, that the Jeep Grand Cherokee has significantly higher rates of fatal rear-impact MHEs than other peer vehicles — from 1993-2004, the Jeep Grand Cherokee has approximately 22 times more crashes per million years of use of rear impacts with fatalities and fire being the most harmful event than the Ford Explorer.

In response to Chryslers conclusion that “the rate of rear impact fires in the Subject Vehicles is statistically indistinguishable from comparable SUVs and other light-duty vehicles of a similar design,” independent statisticians Randy and Alice Whitfield, found:  “Our own statistical analyses showed the opposite.  We found much higher rates of fire occurrence in fatal, rear impact crashes of model year 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees compared to the class of other small and mid-sized 1993-2004 SUVs.  These differences were, in fact, statistically significant.”

Embrey says that she isn’t sure how long she’ll fund the billboards, but she does know that she isn’t ready to quit.

“I’m willing to fight until I die,” she said. “I’m doing the right thing.”