By YOCHI J. DREAZEN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- Although Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. has replaced 2.2
million of its recalled tires so far, the massive effort isn't going fast
enough to prevent new highway fatalities allegedly caused when the
company's tires failed.
At least five deaths have occurred on U.S. highways since Aug. 9, when
Bridgestone/Firestone began the recall of 6.5 million tires. In each fatal
accident, treads reportedly separated from Firestone tires mounted on
Ford Motor Co. Explorer sport-utility vehicles. Those deaths are in
addition to 88 fatalities and more than 1,400 accidents in the U.S.
during the past decade that allegedly are linked to Firestone tires,
mainly on Explorers. The accidents are being investigated by the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Firestone's tire-replacement program was originally expected to take
until next spring to complete. But Firestone and Ford have sped up the
effort and expect to complete the program by late November.
Replacements are proceeding at the rate of 70,000 to 90,000 tires a
The NHTSA said it expects to release
updated figures on the numbers of
deaths and injuries resulting from the
tire failures next week. But
conversations with plaintiffs' lawyers
and law-enforcement officers across the
country make it clear that the numbers
are certain to be higher than the
agency's current estimates. The
continuing deaths offer a reminder of
the human costs exacted by the tire
The victims include Gary Steven Haas,
47 years old, a Florida pediatric heart
surgeon who died Aug. 15 on a
deserted stretch of Texas highway as
he drove his 19-year-old son, who
survived the crash, to college. In
another incident, former small-town police chief Garry Lynn Meek, 56,
and his 13-year-old granddaughter, Amy, were killed Aug. 16 as the
family returned from a vacation in Wyoming. And 10-year-old Mark
Anthony Rodriguez was killed Sept. 3 after his father's Ford Explorer
flipped over as the family drove to Laredo, Texas, to visit a sick aunt.
The exact circumstances of the crashes, all of which have been linked to
faulty Firestone tires on Ford Explorers, vary widely. A closer look at
one of the accidents, however, offers insights into the confusion,
sudden terror, and lingering suffering that connect the crashes.
On the afternoon of Aug. 22, Stephen and Elizabeth Terrasza were
driving home from a family vacation in California, their three-year-old
son Nicholas buckled into a child-safety seat between them, when Mr.
Terrasza felt a sharp bump from the rear of his late-model Explorer.
A split second later, authorities say, the right rear tire separated from
the vehicle, forcing the car to swerve toward the median dividing the
eight-lane highway. The Explorer rolled over three times before landing,
upside down, on the concrete divider. Mr. Terrasza, who suffered a
deep gash in his shoulder, looked over to see his wife, an eighth-grade
English teacher, hanging upside down, suspended only by her seatbelt,
and bleeding profusely. His son, who had been thrown from the vehicle,
was lying unconscious in the street.
The family was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where Nicholas, the family's
only child, was pronounced dead. Lawyers for the family say that Mrs.
Terrasza, who remains in critical condition, hasn't been told of her son's
Firestone insists that the recall is proceeding as fast as possible. The
company has been airlifting tires into the U.S. from Japan, home of
Bridgestone Corp., its parent, and recently agreed to reimburse
Explorer owners who want to buy replacement tires from other
manufacturers rather than wait for tires from Firestone.
Firestone Executive Vice President John Lampe said that while he was
concerned about the large number of recalled tires still on the road, "I
am pleased with all that we've done to speed the efforts."
Meanwhile, in Washington, House lawmakers introduced a bill to expand
the NHTSA's authority to collect data about potentially defective
products and its investigation budget. The measure would require auto
and tire makers to report defects found on U.S. products sold abroad,
a point of contention in the Firestone recall.
Separately, Bridgestone/Firestone is offering to replace an estimated
40,000 tires in Colombia, almost all of which were imported into that
country on Ford Explorers. The company says the replacement
addresses a "mislabeling" problem, not quality concerns. The tires were
all produced at Firestone's plant in Venezuela and are 16-inch tires, not
15-inch tires like the ones subject to the recall in the U.S.
The move underscores the growing split between Ford and Firestone:
Ford has already said it would replace tires in Colombia and suggested
the tires made in Venezuela suffer from serious defects. "There's
obviously a difference of opinion," says John Rappleye, a Firestone
-- Tim Aeppel in Pittsburgh contributed to this story.