Skip to main content
CNN.com /TRANSCRIPTS
CNN TV
EDITIONS
SERVICES
CNN TV
EDITIONS


CNN PRESENTS

CNN Presents: In the Line of Fire

Aired July 20, 2002 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARL YOUNG, TOW TRUCK DRIVER: He was crying for help. He was yelling "get me out of here," and there was nothing I could do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Police officers trapped when their patrol cars go up in flames.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Anything different, if anything would have changed more than one to two seconds, I'd have never made it out of the car.

CLARENCE DITLOW, CENTER FOR AUTO SAFETY: If the force of the crash is not severe enough to kill you, you shouldn't burn to death.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This should never happen again.

AARON BROWN, CNN PRESENTS ANCHOR: Welcome to CNN PRESENTS. I'm Aaron Brown. Whenever a police officer pulls someone over or stops to help a stranded motorist, there is, of course, an element of risk. It goes with the job. Officers know that each time they step out of their car, it could be the last time.

So imagine then the relief they must feel when they finally get back in their own patrol cars, at least it ought to be relief. But increasingly, many officers around the country are not so sure, because there are mounting fears that the most popular police car in America, the Ford Crown Victoria, has a fatal flaw.

It is a claim the Ford Motor Company adamantly denies, but try telling that to the families and the friends of those police officers, and others, who have been trapped and burned alive in a Crown Victoria.

Now a CNN PRESENTS investigation, "In the Line of Fire." Here's Susan Candiotti.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Any police officer knows he or she could die in the line of fire some day, but few would expect this, a police car hit from behind while stopped along the highway, the gas tank ruptured, Arizona Highway Patrol Officer Juan Cruz (ph) trapped inside.

YOUNG: The sound of the impact was horrifying.

CANDIOTTI: Tow truck driver Carl Young ran to help.

YOUNG: Through the crack of the window where the window was open, I could see him in there moving around, trying to - he was pushing on the door and everything else. We just - we couldn't get the door opened.

CANDIOTTI: The doors were jammed. The window would not break.

YOUNG: He was crying for help. He was yelling "get me out of here," and there was nothing I could do. He literally got burned to death while he was still alive.

CANDIOTTI: Juan Cruz was an American success story. He grew up poor in an Arizona mining town, but made good grades, graduated from junior college, and joined the Highway Patrol. Like most police in the U.S., he was driving a Ford Crown Victoria squad car when he stopped late at night to help at another accident scene on Interstate 10 in Tucson in December, 1998.

A young woman in a Nissan Altima, drunk on her 21st birthday, hit him from behind at 66 miles an hour. Even at that speed, the autopsy showed Juan Cruz did not have a single broken bone, no injuries at all. It was the fire, not the crash that killed him.

CANDIOTTI (on camera): In the last half dozen years, gas tank explosions in police car fires have taken almost a dozen lives, the victims often trapped inside burning patrol cars, not seriously hurt in the crash, yet unable to escape the flames.

CANDIOTTI (voice-over): Ford makes the most popular high- performance patrol car in the U.S. Eighty-five percent of all police cars are Ford Crown Victorias. Texas policeman Alan Neel survived a cop car fire. Ask him to show you the gas tank. Now, where's the fuel tank?

ALAN NEEL, SURVIVED FIRE: The fuel tank is right on the back side of the trunk, just right here behind the trunk, the bottom part of the truck. There's nothing, just this small -- this is a piece of metal and then whatever the gas tank is made out of, that's the only thing.

CANDIOTTI: With the top of the tank extending up into the trunk area and the lower part located behind the rear axle, what's to protect the tank when hit from behind? Not much, says mechanic Jamie Armstrong, who works on police cars. JAMIE ARMSTRONG, MECHANIC, TEMPE, ARIZONA: The distance between the gas tank here and the differential, there's not a big distance. We're talking six, eight inches worth of space in here. If we have impact from the rear, all of this gets pushed forward and you basically have a time bomb that's sitting here just waiting to explode.

CANDIOTTI: A policeman's job may be most dangerous when least expected, stopped along the highway to hand out a traffic ticket, stopped to handle an accident, stopped to help another motorist, any time a patrol car is a sitting target for other drivers rushing by.

SCOTT REINACHER, NATIONAL TROOPERS COALITION: You have to be always on the look because a car can come out of any lane. It could be a drunk driver, somebody falling asleep at the wheel, dropped their coffee in their lap, you name it.

CANDIOTTI: Among deaths in Crown Victoria fires in recent years, another Arizona patrolman stopped along an expressway to ticket a speeder. A driver high on drugs hit him going 82 in a small Honda Prelude. A Florida trooper burned up when a drunk behind the wheel of a Mustang plowed into his car at 83 miles per hour; three policemen killed while protecting road construction crews.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean boom, you know. It was an explosion and the car blew up.

CANDIOTTI: A trooper in Louisiana rammed from behind by an elderly man in a Ford van; a deputy sheriff in Florida struck by a coed on the cell phone in her pickup truck; and a Tennessee trooper rear-ended by a drowsy trucker in a semi. In the last year alone, five more victims died in police car fires in Texas, in Alabama, and again in Arizona. In each and every case, fire was the official cause of death.

Watch as this police car is hit from behind at 50 miles an hour in a Ford crash test. Looking up under the car, see what happens to the gas tank in slow motion. The mangled tank did survive this crash intact, but when it doesn't, failure can be fatal.

PATRICK MCGRODER III, ATTORNEY, PHOENIX, ARIZONA: The hole on the tank is right here.

CANDIOTTI: This is Officer Juan Cruz' gas tank, pierced by a sharp-edged bolt head.

MCGRODER: There's your hole that killed him. This is the only mark on this damned tank.

CANDIOTTI: Phoenix attorney Patrick McGroder has been involved in lawsuits against Ford in four gas tank fires in three states.

MCGRODER: If an officer survives a crash, the gas tank should survive, and he ought not to be burned to death.

SUSAN CISCHKE, FORD V.P., SATORY ENGINEERING: You need to understand that these are extremely violent high-speed type occurrences and I don't think it's feasible for any vehicle to be able to withstand any type, you know high-speed type crash. I think that there's always going to be a limit on what the vehicle can do.

CANDIOTTI: In court papers, Ford has argued, its gas tank does meet the current federal requirement that it survive this kind of crash test at 30 miles an hour.

CISCHKE: We believe it's a very safe car; the Crown Victoria is a very safe car.

CANDIOTTI: And when Ford officials met with the Arizona Highway Patrol a year ago, they brought along this chart listing the risk of fire and death in rear-end crashes for 149 makes and models of cars for the past decade; second worst of all on Ford's own list, its Crown Victoria police car.

CISCHKE: A lot of it has to do with the fact that these police vehicles are run 24 hours a day, 60,000 miles a year, versus an average customer would run 20,000 miles a year. So, they are more exposed because they're on the road more often, and they're in high- risk jobs.

CANDIOTTI: Arizona Officer Brandon Powell patrols the same expressway where one of his partners died in a Crown Victoria fire.

BRANDON POWELL, ARIZONA HIGHWAY PATROL: So it just kind of sits in the back of your mind every time you make a traffic stop or when you pull up to an accident scene and you're worried about people coming up behind you and hitting you. There's enough to worry about, other than having to worry about your car blowing up.

CANDIOTTI: Most policemen almost have to believe they are bulletproof, that nothing will happen to them; not Brandon Powell, not anymore. He was on the same squad with Officer "Skip" Fink and was one of the first on the scene when Fink was burned to death during a traffic stop outside Phoenix two years ago.

POWELL: Knowing him personally, and then seeing what the car looked like and then what he looked like after it had happened, brought a sense of that invulnerability that disappeared.

CANDIOTTI: Carl Young, the tow truck driver who tried to rescue Juan Cruz, drives a Greyhound Bus now along the same interstate where Cruz died.

YOUNG: Almost every time I come through here, especially at night, I see Juan Cruz inside his car trying to get out.

CANDIOTTI (on camera): What is there to keep a cop safe when stopped along a highway today?

YOUNG: Nothing, a white line on the edge of the road. That's it.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ANNOUNCER: When "In the Line of Fire" continues, is there a safer place to put the gas tank?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CANDIOTTI (voice-over): Death on a summer morning in northern Florida, Deputy Sheriff Stephen Agner never had a chance.

THOMAS GLEE, DEPUTY SHERIFF, MADISON, FLORIDA: By the time I turned around after I saw the smoke, it was in flames as I turned around to get to him.

CANDIOTTI: Agner's patrol car, inching along on a construction detail, was rammed from behind by a full-size pickup going 70 miles an hour. Fellow deputy Thomas Glee ran to help. The door handle came off in his hand.

GLEE: No. No. No. You couldn't get inside the car, no. The fire was too big.

CANDIOTTI: The very morning when Stephen Agner died in 1999, an hour away in the state capitol, the Florida Highway Patrol was meeting to wind up the first ever study of deadly police car fires.

LT. JAMES WELLS, JR., FLORIDA HIGHWAY PATROL: We feel that the cars can be made to survive higher speed crashes than they currently do.

CANDIOTTI: The Florida Patrol wrote Ford Motor Company asking that gas tanks on patrol cars be built to withstand a rear-end crash at highway speeds up to 75 miles an hour, without leaking, catching fire, killing officers.

WELLS: One of our recommendations, what appeared to be the least cost, was to move the fuel tank.

CANDIOTTI: In other word, put the tank toward the middle of the car, not as close to the point of impact; long-time safety lobbyist Clarence Ditlow.

DITLOW: When it comes to fuel tank safety, it's just like real estate. The three most important factors are location, location, and location. The harder it is to get to the tank, the safer the tank is.

CANDIOTTI (on camera): Think of the underside of a car as a steel box, a heavy metal rectangle bordered by the wheel axles at front and back. Most cars have the gas tank inside that box between the axles where many safety experts believe the tank is better protected, but not the Ford Crown Victoria police car, one of the few vehicles left on the road today with the gas tank outside the box, between the axle and the back bumper.

CANDIOTTI (voice-over): An insurance-funded group says the gas tank should never be at the rear of a car. DR. GERALD DONALDSON, ADVOCATES FOR HIGHWAY AND AUTO SAFETY: Having it behind the rear axle to me would be almost as dumb as having it in front of the front axle.

CANDIOTTI: In fact, Ford's own guidelines say the preferred practice is to put the tank between the two axles.

CISCHKE: It's not a hard-and-fast rule. It's just a general look at; you know, consider these factors but do what makes sense for the particular vehicle.

CANDIOTTI: Susan Cischke says it doesn't make sense for the Crown Victoria, that it's a rear-wheel drive car without enough room for a large gas tank in front of the back axle. She says Ford statistics on car fires do not support a change.

CISCHKE: I just want to emphasize that tank location isn't a factor that vehicles have fires whether they have the tank in front of the axle, over the axle, or behind the axle; and in fact, the Crown Victoria performs equivalent to all those vehicles. So, the tank itself isn't the solution there in terms of the location of the tank.

CANDIOTTI: Yet these were among the findings in a 1994 study of auto fires published by the Federal Agency for Traffic Safety. In fatal crashes, fire is four times more likely to be the cause of death in a rear-end collision than in a head-on impact. Then in that same study, this estimate. "Placing the tank forward of the rear axle reduces the probability of a fire by 29.5 percent."

Ford says it knows of numerous police car crashes where its Crown Victoria gas tank did not leak. Watch the car in front in this video from the camera in a second Ohio Highway Patrol vehicle. There was no fire and no fatalities.

CISCHKE: In fact, we've had about 20 accidents in Columbus, Ohio where the police have written to us, very high-speed accidents with no leaks. So, we have hundreds of examples that the vehicle performs very well at high speeds. What we're trying to do is eliminate the potential for that to occur in any way that we can.

CANDIOTTI: Ford's own guidelines require rear-end crash tests at 50 miles an hour, the highest in the industry. Even those tests did not detect one of its deadliest problems, a sharp-edged bolt head near the rear axle. That bolt head punctured this gas tank in a Louisiana crash that killed a state trooper outside New Orleans, and it's been tied to other deaths in Miami and Tucson.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That bolt holds the bracket for the ABS and emergency brake system on the rear.

CANDIOTTI: Ford did change the bolt head for unrelated reasons five years ago. Last fall, Ford sent dealers a notice on how to replace that bolt on the older cars when police come in to ask for the fix. Yet making such changes, one small part at a time, has not stopped people from dying, among them Deputy Stephen Agner.

WELLS: The right side of the fuel tank on his Crown Victoria was pushed forward and actually wrapped around the rear axle of the car.

CANDIOTTI: When Lieutenant James Wells inspected the wreckage the next day, he found something different. This time the shock absorber bracket had pierced the deputy's gas tank. Ford has moved those shock towers farther away from the fuel tank in the current 2003 model. Will changing or moving various parts without moving the tank make the car safe?

WELLS: I know it is better.

CANDIOTTI (on camera): But?

WELLS: But I don't know if it's good enough.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: Next, did you know the government has no requirement that the doors of a car open even when on fire, when "In the Line of Fire" returns?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CANDIOTTI (voice-over): Scattered along the highway, souvenirs of an inferno.

NEEL: Do you know what this is?

CANDIOTTI (on camera): What? What is that?

NEEL: That's my bullets that were in the trunk.

CANDIOTTI (voice-over): Bullets melted by the fire that consumed Corporal Alan Neel's police car. Two years ago, on a Super Bowl Sunday night, Neel slowed to make a turn just outside Taylor, Texas. In his rearview mirror, he saw a pickup truck speeding up behind him.

NEEL: As I was bracing myself I'm thinking, you know, this is going to hurt.

CANDIOTTI: The pickup rear-ended the patrol car. The gas tank caught fire.

NEEL: There was kind of a bright orange flash, and I felt just a tremendous amount of heat, and once the car stopped, it immediately had flames come over the top of my cage here on both sides and come down the front of the car.

TAMAR MARTINSEN, EYEWITNESS: My first thought was, "Oh, my God, he's dead."

CANDIOTTI: Tamar Martinsen saw the accident.

MARTINSEN: I did not think that there was anything left of the car. There were like fireworks shooting out from the trunk of the car. It was just engulfed in flames.

NEEL: After the car stopped, my first thought was "I'm not going to burn up in this car."

CANDIOTTI: He reached for the door handle.

NEEL: At the time I was releasing my seatbelt, I was trying to open this door. It would not open.

CANDIOTTI: The driver's door was jammed shut by the crash. Neel swung his legs toward the passenger door. It too was stuck.

NEEL: Two good, hard kicks and it finally got opened. There was just, to me it looked like just a small space of daylight, because at the top and at the bottom were nothing but fire. That's all I could see.

CANDIOTTI: He staggered through the smoke.

MARTINSEN: I thought, "Oh, my God, he's on fire," because of the way the flames were shooting up from behind him and he was silhouetted by the flames and the smoke.

NEEL: Anything different, anything would have changed in one to two seconds I would have never made it out of the car.

CANDIOTTI: Of all the policemen caught in car fires, Corporal Neel is the only one we know who was able to escape by himself, unaided, and unhurt.

CANDIOTTI (on camera): The federal government has no, repeat no requirement that the doors of any car open after a crash, even if on fire, even if under water. For the first time, the agency that oversees highway safety has raised the question whether it should be doing something, but chances are, even if change does come, it would still be at least a decade away.

CANDIOTTI (voice-over): The Center for Auto Safety says people should be able to survive most rear-end crashed because the car keeps going forward, unlike in a head-on collision.

DITLOW: If the force of the crash is not severe enough to kill you, you shouldn't burn to death.

CANDIOTTI: Yet, that's what's happening. In Arizona, Highway Patrolman Juan Cruz was uninjured in this crash when he burned to death. The police report said his doors jammed. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has asked auto companies whether it should require one or more doors to open in rear-end collisions and other crashed. Ford already requires that in its own 50-mile-an-hour rear impact test, and says it favors such a government rule for all cars.

DITLOW: Just ask someone, if you're trapped in a vehicle, how much is it worth to you to have the door open? I mean you couldn't -- there's no amount of money that you wouldn't pay to get out of a burning vehicle.

CANDIOTTI: In northern Florida, Deputy Sheriff Steve Agner suffered little more than a broken collarbone when a pickup hit his patrol car at 70 miles an hour, yet the Florida Highway Patrol found all four of his doors jammed. Agner was trapped and died.

DITLOW: In one of these fires, if there's a ball of flame, you have just a matter of seconds to escape. If you take a deep breath, you're breathing fire into your lungs and the chances of surviving after you do that are very small.

CANDIOTTI: In Taylor, Texas, why did Corporal Alan Neel live when so many others died? Probably because he once had been a volunteer fireman and he was trained to hold his breath until he got out. Even so, if the passenger door on the other side had not opened...

NEEL: I'd have probably lost my life. I would have probably been burned to death.

CANDIOTTI: The next day Corporal Neel went to the wrecker yard and took these pictures of what was left of his car.

NEEL: Everything from the dash, including where I was sitting, my jacket, was nothing but just steel, frame, and ashes.

CANDIOTTI: It has changed one way Neel now looks at life.

NEEL: If a person could wear out a rearview mirror, since my accident I probably have wore out a dozen rearview mirrors.

ANNOUNCER: Next "In the Line of Fire," the human face of calamity and courage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, I would love to start running again.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(INTERRUPTED FOR NEWS ALERT)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CANDIOTTI (voice over): Call him a dead man walking. He is Patrolman Jason Schechterle, Phoenix Police Department. On his face are seared all the horrors of how bad a police car fire can be.

One year ago, Jason Schechterle's squad car was hammered from behind by a taxicab going as much as 100 miles an hour. The Crown Victoria cruiser slid to a stop right in front of a fire truck with Beckie Joy at the wheel.

BECKIE JOY, PHOENIX FIRE DEPT.: We were just cruising along and then all of a sudden the world blows up and all you saw was a ball of flame coming at you, two vehicles on fire with the tail afire.

DARREN BOYCE, PHOENIX FIRE DEPT.: It was already burned black before it even came to a stop.

CANDIOTTI: As fireman Darren Boyce ran toward the blazing police car, the flames got worse.

BOYCE: It was a boom, and pushed my head back when it went off, and I was probably 15 feet, 10, 15 feet from the car.

CANDIOTTI: Boyce stuck a fire hose through the smashed back window. Another fireman ran to the side of the car.

BOYCE: He put the head of an axe through the driver's window.

CANDIOTTI: The firemen kept spraying water until they could pull Schechterle through the window. Schechterle remembers almost nothing.

JASON SCHECHTERLE, PHOENIX POLICE DEPT.: I have one very quick vision of firefighters standing next to my car.

CANDIOTTI: Darren Boyce thought they were pulling a dead man from the car.

BOYCE: All the features on his head had been pretty much melted down that I knew he had been burned really bad.

CANDIOTTI: In the hospital operating room, Schechterle was given the last rites for the dying. Doctors kept him in a coma for two and a half months.

J. SCHECHTERLE: I couldn't believe the time that passed. I missed our anniversary. I missed my son's birthday and all that and it was just at the blink of an eye.

CANDIOTTI: He awoke with his wife Susie beside him, to begin a new life as a different person.

J. SCHECHTERLE: Obviously my nose mostly is burned off. My ears are burned off. My eyelids were completely burned off and the corneas of my eyes were severely damaged from the burns and from heat.

CANDIOTTI (on camera): What do you see now?

J. SCHECHTERLE: It's very blurry, like being underwater, is the best way to describe it.

CANDIOTTI: How do I look to you?

J. SCHECHTERLE: I can see the colors of your clothes, but I can't see your face. It's just all one -- it's like all one skin tone color, very blurry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jason, you ready?

J. SCHECHTERLE: I'm ready. CANDIOTTI (voice-over): A year of operations behind him, ahead he can see only more rehab workouts and more operations.

SCHECHTERLE: I've had 24 surgeries in the past 12 months, and I'm facing at least 12 or 15 more just to be able to function again. That doesn't count the cosmetic side to help my appearance.

CANDIOTTI: Because much of his hands were burned away, there are so many things he can not do, holding a pencil, driving a car.

SCHECHTERLE: Taking my kids to school, picking them up, helping my daughter with her homework, something very simple like that.

SUSIE SCHECHTERLE, WIFE: Let daddy hold this picture.

CANDIOTTI: His son Zane is still confused about who his daddy is, before and after.

ZANE SCHECHTERLE, SON: My daddy took me to the golf course.

SCHECHTERLE: I did take you to the golf course.

Z. SCHECHTERLE: No, not you, that dad.

SCHECHTERLE: Is this me?

Z. SCHECHTERLE: No, that's not you. That's my daddy.

CANDIOTTI: But Jason knows who he is and has learned he can live with that.

SCHECHTERLE: While I'm not happy right now with what I see in the mirror, it has become normal to me. When I dream now in my sleep, this is what I look like in my dreams.

CANDIOTTI: He knows if the crash had not happened in front of the fire truck, he would not be alive.

SCHECHTERLE: I could not have spent another five seconds in that car.

CANDIOTTI: Even in that 100-mile-an-hour impact, Schechterle had suffered little more than a couple of broken ribs.

SCHECHTERLE: I survived the crash easily but the fire is what you see right now. It's only the fire.

CANDIOTTI: From those ashes has risen an advocate for changing where Ford puts its gas tank so close to the back of police cars.

SCHECHTERLE: I say unequivocally that the gas tank is in the wrong place. There are much safer places. There are plenty of cars on the road that this does not - a rear-end collision does not result in a fireball. I think that a manufacturer should be able to design a car that's not going to explode.

CANDIOTTI: Schechterle knows he can never be a street cop again. He hopes to return as a detective.

SCHECHTERLE: I have six years but I can't go back to work right as a patrol officer.

CANDIOTTI: Eventually, he will get new eyes, a surgically reconstructed face.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I need those impressions.

CANDIOTTI: Until then a former master of disguise for the CIA is making Jason a lifelike mask to wear as his face.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That is a perfect nose.

SCHECHTERLE: Not for me.

CANDIOTTI: Literally one step at a time, Jason Schechterle is on the road to recovery. In January, Jason was chosen to help carry the Olympic Torch through Phoenix. He refused the offer of a wheelchair.

SCHECHTERLE: I remembered just five months before I couldn't even walk, not even two steps, couldn't get out of bed, couldn't do anything. I probably remember probably everything and all the sounds I heard from my wife running next to me screaming. That was one of my most proudest moments is that I was able to jog a little bit and carry that torch.

CANDIOTTI: Jason Schechterle has survived against all odds to lift a different torch now, to speak out for the future of fellow policemen.

SCHECHTERLE: There's no amount, financial amount in the world that can replace a life or give me back what I had, and I don't think it's too much to ask Ford to make sure that I am the last person who will talk about this. This should never happen again.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TED VILLEMAIRE, DEARBORN, MICHIGAN POLICE DEPARTMENT (RET): That's just about where the accident happened.

CANDIOTTI (voice-over): Twenty-one years ago, Officer Ted Villemaire was getting out of his squad car at the end of a police chase when it was hit from behind.

VILLEMAIRE: The last that I remember of the accident before waking up in the hospital is that I heard a screech and then that's it until I wake up in the hospital.

CANDIOTTI: He was pinned beneath his Ford LTD Crown Victoria police cruiser. Gasoline soaked his uniform and caught fire. Villemaire was burned over 70 percent of his body and spent four months in a hospital.

VILLEMAIRE: My son was 23 months when I got hurt and when I went back to work, the day I put the uniform on, he cried. I'm sorry, didn't want me to go.

CANDIOTTI: That crash in 1981 happened in Dearborn, Michigan, right down the freeway from the headquarters of Ford Motor Company. Ford settled with Villemaire in his lawsuit. The case was sealed, the outcome kept secret. Again and again for two decades, Ford has paid to settle lawsuits over police car fires in rear-end crashes.

Just weeks ago, it settled in the deaths of two Highway Patrol officers in Arizona, and a deputy sheriff in Florida. Not once has Ford ever fought one of these cases all the way to trial.

CANDIOTTI (on camera): If Ford's position is that these accidents are unpredictable and unpreventable, why are you paying off so many of these lawsuits?

CISCHKE: I don't think that settling a lawsuit is any indication of what actually happened or who's responsible. I think lawsuits aren't really about facts and truth. It's about who pays, in many cases, and you know our hearts do go out to the families of people involved and, you know, we want to do the right thing, but that doesn't imply that there's something wrong with the vehicle.

CANDIOTTI: And Ford has paid?

CISCHKE: Yes, they have.

CANDIOTTI: Millions?

CISCHKE: I have no idea. I'm not involved in that aspect of it.

CANDIOTTI (voice-over): Now, more lawsuits are looming, class action cases filed against Ford in Texas and New Jersey, plus the threat of a suit by Arizona's attorney general if Ford doesn't do more to protect its police cars.

JANET NAPOLITANO, ARIZONA ATTORNEY GENERAL: There are a lot of different ways to fix this problem. We just want Ford to fix it.

CANDIOTTI: In March, Attorney General Napolitano wrote Ford asking for a recall.

Then, just a month ago, in June, another death in Arizona, the third in that state within four years. This time, a young policeman in a Phoenix suburb trapped in the fire when a collision sent the right rear side of his car careening into a light pole.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Basically, humongous ball of fire. The car was like flooded with smoke and flames.

CANDIOTTI: The Arizona attorney general flew to Detroit.

After two Arizona highway officers died in police car fires and a Phoenix patrolman was severely burned, police groups began asking for a federal investigation.

LEE RAPPLEYEA, ARIZ. FRATERNAL ORDER OF POLICE: There are certain hazards that are inherent to the job. Being burned alive in a Crown Victoria is not one of those hazards that we have to tolerate.

CANDIOTTI: Ford officials went to Washington last summer to meet with NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In this memo, Ford wrote that it "went to NHTSA, got an agreement NHTSA will not open an investigation." Not enough evidence, said a Ford official.

Within weeks, another death on a freeway near Houston, this time a woman driver very, very drunk taken from her car, handcuffed, and put in the back seat of a Ford Crown Victoria police cruiser. Seconds later, a semi trailer truck smashed into it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All three vehicles exploded into a big ball of flames.

CANDIOTTI: Her injuries may well have been fatal, but the medical examiner said it was the tremendous fire that killed her. In late November, the Federal Traffic Safety Agency did an about face and opened a low-level inquiry to look at not only Ford's police car, but also its regular models with the same chassis and gas tank location, the Mercury Grand Marquis, Lincoln Towne Car, and Crown Victoria Sedan. There's a less frequent rate of fire deaths in those passenger cars though, with less reason for the everyday driver to be concerned.

CISCHKE: When you look at an average Crown Victoria owner, they might be pulled over to the side of the road maybe one time in the three-year period when they own their vehicle, where the police, the normal traffic police officer will make 30 to 50 stops per day. So, the risk is a lot greater because of the type of work that they're in.

CANDIOTTI: The government opened the inquiry only after Ford sent a bulletin to dealers on how to fix a couple of sharp-edged parts that have pierced the gas tank; grinding down a tiny tab on the rear axle, replacing a sharp-edged bolt. Ford told the police how to get repairs. It never notified the public. In December, late at night in Alabama, a tire blew on a car full of kids. It spun off the road, slid backwards into a tree, and caught fire.

TODD SIMONSON, FIRE CHIEF: Those flames were high. They were probably 10 to 15 foot.

CANDIOTTI: The gas tank was wrapped around the rear axle and tore open. Everything but the metal burned.

SIMONSON: All the upholstery gone, radio was gone, anything plastic components or anything covered in plastic or upholstery items or flooring or carpeting gone, burned down to nothing but framework.

CANDIOTTI: Three victims, two of them 19, the other 21 were trapped in the back seat. Two were unhurt in the crash. All three died in the fire. The car was a Crown Victoria police car from a Cleveland suburb bought used because the family thought it would be safer. We asked Ford if it has second thoughts now about alerting the public.

CISCHKE: I don't know all the facts of that particular accident, but I don't think that because it was a retired police vehicle has anything to do with how the police use their vehicles versus how the civilians do.

CANDIOTTI: Safety groups have begun to sound an alarm over police car fires.

JOAN CLAYBROOK, PUBLIC CITIZEN: You should locate that fuel tank as far away from the point of impact as you can.

CANDIOTTI: Joan Claybrook ran the Highway Safety Agency in the late 1970s when Ford had to recall the Pinto because of fuel leaks and fires in rear-end crashes.

CLAYBROOK: You would think that after having gone through the Pinto case that the company would have learned a lesson.

CANDIOTTI: Claybrook now heads the consumer group Public Citizen.

CLAYBROOK: In my view, this is clearly a defect and should clearly be recalled just like the Pinto was.

CANDIOTTI: Ford disagrees and says NHTSA will decide whether anything needs to be done.

CISCHKE: We're working with them in providing the data and I think they understand that when you look at the data, we are no more over-represented than any other vehicles and that's vehicles no matter where the tank is located. So, the statistics show that this is a safe vehicle. We're just looking for ways to make it safer.

CANDIOTTI: NHTSA seems already to have ruled out requiring automakers to put the gas tank in front of the rear axle in any car. It wrote in a regulatory proceeding a year and a half ago: "We believe such a requirement is unnecessary and would be design restrictive."

CLAYBROOK: You can move a fuel tank and you can redesign the fuel tank and put in a new fuel tank. That's not rocket science.

CANDIOTTI: NHTSA explained Ford's Mustang had passed a tougher new rear-end crash test with its tank behind the axle. What it didn't say is the Mustang uses a plastic shield to help protect the tank, the same solution Ford found for the Pinto but has resisted for police cars.

Historically, NHTSA has had a hard time going head-to-head with the auto industry in safety investigations.

CLAYBROOK: I think they're mostly under-funded, starving to death. It's a little tiny office of you know 20 people that are looking at the whole automotive industry in the United States, where they sell from 15 to 20 million vehicles a year. CANDIOTTI: In the mid-'90s, NHTSA tried to get a recall of General Motors pickup trucks with side-saddle gas tanks. GM denied any defect and fought back in court. The government backed down when GM agreed to pay millions for other safety programs. Nothing was done about the tanks. Many of those older trucks are still on the road and people are still dying in fiery crashes, close to 20 in one recent year.

CLAYBROOK: When it's a knockdown, drag-out fight, the industry wins.

CANDIOTTI: At whose expense?

CLAYBROOK: At the expense of the American public.

CANDIOTTI (on camera): The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has declined to be interviewed on its investigation of police car fires. There's no indication how much longer it may take or what the result may be.

ANNOUNCER: When "In the Line of Fire" returns, another death in Arizona and Ford's promise to consider changes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TED VILLEMAIRE, DEARBORN, MICHIGAN POLICE DEPARTMENT (RET): That's just about where the accident happened.

CANDIOTTI (voice-over): Twenty-one years ago, Officer Ted Villemaire was getting out of his squad car at the end of a police chase when it was hit from behind.

VILLEMAIRE: The last that I remember of the accident before waking up in the hospital is that I heard a screech and then that's it until I wake up in the hospital.

CANDIOTTI: He was pinned beneath his Ford LTD Crown Victoria police cruiser. Gasoline soaked his uniform and caught fire. Villemaire was burned over 70 percent of his body and spent four months in a hospital.

VILLEMAIRE: My son was 23 months when I got hurt and when I went back to work, the day I put the uniform on, he cried. I'm sorry, didn't want me to go.

CANDIOTTI: That crash in 1981 happened in Dearborn, Michigan, right down the freeway from the headquarters of Ford Motor Company. Ford settled with Villemaire in his lawsuit. The case was sealed, the outcome kept secret. Again and again for two decades, Ford has paid to settle lawsuits over police car fires in rear-end crashes.

Just weeks ago, it settled in the deaths of two Highway Patrol officers in Arizona, and a deputy sheriff in Florida. Not once has Ford ever fought one of these cases all the way to trial.

CANDIOTTI (on camera): If Ford's position is that these accidents are unpredictable and unpreventable, why are you paying off so many of these lawsuits?

CISCHKE: I don't think that settling a lawsuit is any indication of what actually happened or who's responsible. I think lawsuits aren't really about facts and truth. It's about who pays, in many cases, and you know our hearts do go out to the families of people involved and, you know, we want to do the right thing, but that doesn't imply that there's something wrong with the vehicle.

CANDIOTTI: And Ford has paid?

CISCHKE: Yes, they have.

CANDIOTTI: Millions?

CISCHKE: I have no idea. I'm not involved in that aspect of it.

CANDIOTTI (voice-over): Now, more lawsuits are looming, class action cases filed against Ford in Texas and New Jersey, plus the threat of a suit by Arizona's attorney general if Ford doesn't do more to protect its police cars.

JANET NAPOLITANO, ARIZONA ATTORNEY GENERAL: There are a lot of different ways to fix this problem. We just want Ford to fix it.

CANDIOTTI: In March, Attorney General Napolitano wrote Ford asking for a recall. Then, just a month ago, in June, another death in Arizona, the third in that state within four years. This time, a young policeman in a Phoenix suburb trapped in the fire when a collision sent the right rear side of his car careening into a light pole.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Basically, humongous ball of fire. The car was like flooded with smoke and flames.

CANDIOTTI: The Arizona attorney general flew to Detroit.

Ford officials promised to start new tests, using 50 mile an hour rear-end crashes like this, to try other solutions, a rubber bladder inside the fuel tank or a plastic shield on the outside. Ford offers no guarantees. It says when it did try a shield on a gas tank in an earlier test, meant to duplicate the crash in Tucson, the tank broke open anyway.

CISCHKE: It's just that directionally, there's so much energy involved in that high speed of an accident, it's doubtful in my mind that a shield would be effective.

CANDIOTTI: But nothing is going to be left off the table in the tests, says Ford.

CISCHKE: We don't know what the conclusions are going to be, but we do know that we want to get to the heart of the matter, be data driven, and find out what could possibly be a solution. But I don't think you'll ever eliminate the risk because there's always going to be risk of motor vehicle accidents at high speed. CANDIOTTI: Late at night on the Fourth of July, still another Crown Victoria fire in a rear-end crash outside Atlanta. The officer escaped with minor injuries. It was the sixth such police car fire in under a year.

Still, for police around the nation, the Ford Crown Victoria remains the number one high speed, high performance patrol car. The vast majority we met do want to keep driving it, even Phoenix patrolman Jason Schechterle, as badly burned as he was, but on one condition.

SCHECHTERLE: If they made these changes, like I said, I would stand up and say, you know, that is a very safe car as long as it doesn't catch on fire on a simple rear-end collision.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: For now, Arizona won't buy any more Crown Victoria police cars. The governor made that decision, and Florida has just taken a similar step. The move comes as Jason Schechterle, the Phoenix police officer so badly burned, continues his remarkable recovery.

Despite all those surgeries and all the uncertainty, Jason and his wife Susie are expecting their third child at the end of the year. That's this edition of CNN PRESENTS. I'm Aaron Brown. We'll see you next week.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LARRY KING, LARRY KING WEEKEND: Tonight, where's Johnny. He dropped out of late night and our lives ten years ago.

END

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com





 
 
 
 


 Search   

Back to the top