Confusion marks recall of Chrysler minivans
By Bill Vlasic
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. Fifteen months after DaimlerChrysler AG announced a recall of 1.16 million minivans to fix leaky fuel seals, the vehicles are still on the road and at risk of engine fires.
DaimlerChrysler agreed to the voluntary recall on Sept. 8, 2000, after 19 fires had been reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In addition, three people died in minivan fires. But the recall still has not taken place, and in the interim six more engine fires have been reported and another 56 consumers have complained of fuel leaks in 1996-2000 model Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth minivans, according to government documents obtained by The Detroit News.
Several minivan owners have been told by DaimlerChrysler dealers that no recall exists. Others were told incorrectly that their vehicles are not included in the planned safety action.
The owner of a 1996 Chrysler Town & Country told NHTSA on Oct. 9 that he had to pay $542 to replace the equipment leaky o-rings in the minivan's fuel rail covered by the recall.
Recall due in January
DaimlerChrysler says it will start the recall in late January. A company spokesman blamed the extensive delay on limited production capacity of replacement parts, and a time-consuming effort to come up with an alternative solution.
"The time line has extended much longer than we wanted," DaimlerChrysler spokesman Mike Rosenau told The Detroit News last week. "There absolutely is a sense of urgency to get this done."
About 500 automotive recalls are initiated each year, but the protracted delay in DaimlerChrysler's minivan action is highly unusual.
"This is an exception, an anomaly, and not what we like to see," said NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd. "But DaimlerChrysler is the one responsible to come up with the solution."
The incidence of fuel leaks in Chrysler minivans is, statistically, quite small. DaimlerChrysler told NHTSA that the rate of fuel leak complaints is four in 100,000 vehicles. But when fuel does leak in a minivan engine compartment, the results can be catastrophic. Of the 25 engine fires reported to NHTSA, at least 10 of the minivans were engulfed in flames and every vehicle sustained extensive damage. Seven injuries are cited in NHTSA documents.
"I count my blessings every day," said Peter Kidd, whose Dodge Caravan caught fire as he drove down a busy New York street on Oct. 27, 1999. "I could hardly open the door because the flames were so high. I jumped out of the van to save my life."
Victims' families angry
Three people have died in fires in minivans that were part of the recall population. On Jan. 25, 1999, 76-year-old Elinor Ovens died in a fire in a new $33,000 Town & Country minivan in rural Georgia. Seven months later, Richard and Anne Caddock were killed when their Town & Country erupted in flames after a traffic collision in Roseburg, Ore.
Neither NHTSA nor DaimlerChrysler attribute those fires specifically to fuel-rail leaks. But relatives of the victims are convinced that fuel-system defects contributed to the sudden fires.
Relatives of Ovens have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against DaimlerChrysler in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.
"This van did not burn up because of any crash," said Ren Keel, whose mother is Ovens' cousin. "We want to know why she died in a van that she bought three days before."
Susan Brinkman, the daughter of Richard and Anne Caddock, expressed shock that a fuel-related recall has dragged on more than a year without action.
"I'm very disappointed that this recall hasn't happened," Brinkman said. "We counted on NHTSA to make sure the fuel systems were fixed in these vans."
One automotive safety advocate criticized DaimlerChrysler and NHTSA for allowing the recalled minivans to remain on the road.
"If you don't have something happening in a recall within six months, you're putting lives at risk," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Automotive Safety Center in Washington.
In fact, four major engine fires occurred in October 2000, just one month after DaimlerChrysler informed NHTSA that it had "decided to conduct a field action in the form of a safety recall."
Details of the fires are included in incident reports submitted to NHTSA by consumers or dealers. The reports do not identify the names or addresses of the owners, but provide descriptions of the incidents.
Leaks can be catastrophic
A stack of incident reports dating to 1997 illustrates the random and frightening results of a safety problem that DaimlerChrysler traces to o-ring seals that degrade over time or under extreme temperatures. The seals are on the so-called fuel rail, a thin tube that feeds gasoline to fuel injectors in the recalled vans' 3.3-liter and 3.8-liter engines. With gasoline flowing through the rail at pressures approaching 50 pounds per square inch, even the tiniest leak can spray fuel inside the engine compartment.
According to the documents, minivans have caught fire while being driven, while parked, and, in some cases, after the ignition was turned off. Minivans have burned with as few as 2,000 miles on the odometer and as many as 107,000 miles.