HOT SPURTING GAS. Ford disputes need to expand its van recall

Faced with lawsuits and a high-level investigation by the Department of Transportation, the Ford Motor Company is recalling some 16,000 vans that had been converted to ambulances. But consumer safety groups say last week's recall announcement is only half the battle. Now they are pressuring Ford to recall an estimated 345,000 Econoline vans, which, they say, have the same defect: Pressure builds up in the fuel tank, sometimes causing hot gas to spurt out of the gas tank and burst into flames. There have been no fatalities but at least 20 injuries and 38 fires.

Ford denies that there is a design problem with its vans, most of which have two gas tanks instead of one in a dual-tank system. The company claims that the manufacturers converting the vans into ambulances are responsible for the problem. Consumer groups, however, claim that the incidents reported by van owners and ambulance drivers are too similar to ignore.

Consider the following two cases:

On June 30, Jerry Stevens piled his wife, his nephew, and a cluster of baby-shower presents into an ambulance and drove off to go sightseeing at Whitepass ski resort in Washington state.

Mr. Stevens, an executive at Paratech Ambulance Service, had bought the ambulance for his company and was driving it back to Milwaukee, where Paratech is based. When they got to Whitepass, Stevens heard a ``loud screeching noise'' from the gas cap. When he gave the front and rear gas caps a quarter turn to release the pressure, he says, ``the rear tank began to spew hot gas all over, the cap flew off, and the fuel ignited where the gas cap had been.'' The ambulance itself was burned, but no one was hurt.

About 14 months earlier, on May 9, 1986, a similar but more damaging incident happened to Thomas Clough when he went to fill up his 1985 Ford van in a gas station in Ackworth, Ga. As he opened the cap to fill the tank, hot gas spurted out and ignited. Mr. Clough received severe burns, his van was destroyed, and ``two-thirds of the gas station was totaled,'' he says.

Clough, like others, believes the problem is a design defect in the dual gas tank. He is worried that if Ford doesn't do something about the vans as well as the converted ambulances, someone else will get hurt.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has an ``active engineering analysis,'' the second of three levels of investigation, on Ford's Econoline 150, 250, and 350 vans. But Ford says statistically the chances of a problem with an ambulance are 90 times higher than with a van that has not been converted.

The NHTSA has received reports of 234 fuel expulsions, 22 fires, and 15 injuries on some 16,000 ambulances. By contrast, it has received reports of 75 fuel expulsions, 16 fires, and five injuries on the 345,000 vans.

The ambulance recall probably won't deflect the controversy, especially because a smaller recall a few months ago failed to correct the problem. The recall prompted Virginia to drop its planned lawsuit demanding action, but a $2 million lawsuit filed by the city of Cincinnati is pending.

Robert Dewey at the Center for Auto Safety, in Washington, D.C., worries that the ambulance recall will defuse pressure on Ford to recall its unconverted vans.

Consumers are harder to organize than ambulance users like the American Ambulance Association, he notes, adding, ``It's an uphill battle.''

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