Witness Talks About Fiery 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee Crash

12:15 PM, Feb 25, 2013   |    comments
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WINCHESTER, Va. (WUSA9) -- "Their back end was right in the guardrail when I saw it burning," says Jenelle Embrey.

It is the first time she has returned to that section of I-81 near Winchester, Virginia.

"This is accident, as chaotic as it was, didn't kill anybody immediately," says Anchor and consumer correspondent Lesli Foster.

"No!  It was miraculous everybody was alive.  We were all alive," Jenelle says.

October of last year, Jenelle and her dad took his new PT Cruiser for an evening drive.  Behind them, Heather Santor drove her son Zachary and a friend in her 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee.  It was Columbus Day weekend, and the boys were coming home from college for a break.

"As soon as we got to 81, we never even got up to speed.  We saw the traffic jam immediately," says Jenelle.

But apparently, the driver of a big rig did not.  According to a police report, the driver took his eyes off the road.  He plowed into the back of Heather's 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee going 65 miles an hour.  The Jeep, then crashed into the 2002 PT Cruiser carrying Jenelle and her Dad.

She says, "I was just kinda hyperventilating and sobbing, cause I saw a small fire right at the back bumper of that Jeep."

Jenelle's dad sprung into action.

"He's leaning in the vehicle.  He's talking to them.  He's telling them there's a fire, and you have to get out.  The mom, she must have known something was happening because she looked at my dad and Zachary, and she reached down and undid his latch," she says.

Jenelle's dad was able to save Zachary, but he wanted to do more.

"As my dad went around the front of the vehicle, there's like this gush of wind, only it was fire.  And the fire just went from the back of the vehicle to the front.  Zachary was standing there.  And of course, he's screaming, 'mom! mom!'.  And she just burned to death, right in front of us, as well as the little kid in the back," says the mom of two teenaged boys.

We talked to Clarence Ditlow, the Executive Director for the Center for Auto Safety, back in 2011.

"People who are lucky survive.  But, there's absolute tragedies," he says.

The Center for Auto Safety believes the placement of the plastic gas tanks in these late model Jeep Grand Cherokees can lead to fires and deaths.  The gas tank is located behind the rear axle, literally in the crush zone of the vehicle. 

In 2009, the Center for Auto Safety used the government's data to make the case to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it should investigate fiery crashes that involve 1993 to 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees.

In 2005, Chrysler moved the gas tank in front of the rear axle.  The company says it did that to provide more cargo space.

Ditlow says, "You'll have a huge ball of fire and people can't get out of the vehicles before they burn,"

"It was all just 60 seconds from the impact," Jenelle says.

The two people who died in Winchester in that devastating chain reaction crash could be added to a growing list of mothers, fathers and children who died by fire in a late model Jeep Grand Cherokee.  Jenelle is afraid that more people may die, before the government takes action.

"I've had lots of nightmares and terrible flashbacks, and I just feel like I need something to just channel this anxiety into," she says.

So, Jenelle channeled that energy by starting an online petition.

"If I get enough caring people to sign, I'm hoping we can do something," she says.

It's posted on Change.org.  Jenelle wants NHTSA and Chrysler to recall these late model Jeep Grand Cherokees.  Already, more than 500 people have signed it, including one family member of Heather Santor.

She writes, "After watching my husband, in-laws, and nephew mourn the loss of their sister, daughter and mother due to a horrific accident, I sincerely hope there is some investigation and recall to make everyone more safe,"

Jenelle says she hopes her efforts will not be in vain.

"We were all equally alive.  And, we weren't in the Jeep and they were, I saw them burn to death," she says.

Jenelle's Petition to NHTSA

After this accident, Jenelle reached out the the Center for Auto Safety, and watched our year long investigation into these safety issues online.

That sparked her to start this petition.  And, she plans to hand deliver it to NHTSA once she gets more signatures.

Right now, it's set up so that each time a person signs it, NHTSA gets an email.

The Center for Auto Safety asked NHTSA to include this accident as part of their investigation into the 1993 to 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees.

In a statement, Chrysler tells us, "This tragedy was the result of a violent high energy crash caused by a distracted tractor trailer driver who rammed into the back of the 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee at highway speed.  Indeed, the 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee meets and exceeds all applicable federal safety highway standards, including the stringent requirements of the applicable FMVSS 301, the standard by which a vehicle's fuel system design is evaluated in the U.S., and has an excellent safety record over many registered vehicle years."

This investigation has been going on since 2010.  Safety experts say it is unusual for them to last this long. 

NHTSA EA12005 Jeep Grand Cherokee Investigation

NHTSA DP09005 Jeep Grand Cherokee Investigation

NHTSA PE10031 Jeep Grand Cherokee Investigation

In June 2012, NHTSA expanded their investigation into these fiery crashes to include the 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokee and the 2002 to 2007 Jeep Liberty vehicles.


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