WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA) -- She was pretty young when she left the house at 18, and jumped on a plane and went to the other side of the ocean.
Stacey Mayer returned home from school in England a year older, and her family was happy to have her back.
On a warm July day in 2007, she read some passages from her Bible, then set out to go exercise and take a friend to breakfast.
"This was the friend that she was actually going to pick up. She walked out the door, drove up the hill and about an hour later had the accident," says her dad Steve.
A driver having a seizure lost control on a Wisconsin state highway and slammed into the back of Stacey's 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
"They bounced through the intersection here and ended up smashing the guardrail on this side," he says.
According to police accident reports and witness statements, the Jeep burst into flames.
"We were a family of five. Now, we're a family of four," her mom Susan says.
"People who are lucky survive. But there's absolute tragedies," says Clarence Ditlow.
Ditlow heads up the Center for Auto Safety, a non-profit here in Washington founded in 1970.
His office petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2009 to investigate crashes involving 1993 to 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee's like the one Stacey was driving.
The Center used the government's Fatal Analysis Research System, also known as FARS, to make their case. Using that FARS data, the Center for Auto Safety now counts at least 51 accidents where 72 people died in rear, side and rollover crashes and fire was the chief cause of their death.
"You'll have a huge ball of fire and people can't get out of the vehicles before they burn," says Clarence Ditlow.
NHTSA granted the Center's petition two years ago, but focused only on rear end crashes.
October 2, 2009 Center for Auto Safety Petition
Just days ago, NHTSA took a step forward in their investigation, ordering an engineering analysis of the vehicles.
But, NHTSA officials pointed out that not all of the people who died were in a Jeep Grand Cherokee, some were in the vehicle that struck the SUV.
It is one of the key factors that convinced NHTSA to upgrade its safety defect investigation.
Chrysler's response to the expanded probe is that the Jeep Grand Cherokee is no risker than its closest competitors.
Chrysler says 1.8 million of these vehicles are still out on the roads. Ditlow wants all of them recalled.
Auto experts say the problem is where the plastic fuel tank is positioned, behind the rear axle.
You can see it below the bumper. In the 1993 to 1998 models, the fuel tank looks like a spare tire well. The plastic tank that carries gallons of fuel, literally hangs down, exposed with no protection.
A brush guard covers the gas tank in the 1999 to 2004 models. It's supposed to protect the plastic tank in low speeds from brush and other obstructions, but experts say that's not enough. The placement of the tank is simply too risky.
"It's in the crush zone of any vehicle striking it from behind. The vehicle that strikes it will push on that gas tank and any number of bad things can happen," Ditlow says.
In an effort to move the investigation forward, the Center for Auto Safety asked the Federal Highway Administration to conduct rear impact tests on a 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee. They used a non-flammable liquid in the tests to demonstrate what can happen when the gas tank ruptures.
July 8, 2011 Center for Auto Safety Petition
"You'll begin to see the gasoline, right there, coming out of the fuel tank. And, it's vaporizing and producing a mist and it's a perfect source for combustion. There's not much damage in the Grand Cherokee itself. But then there's the gasoline. You're surviving the trauma of the crash, but you get burned," Clarence Ditlow says.
Chrysler says the crash tests conducted on its Jeep Grand Cherokee were conducted 20 miles per hour faster than the fuel standard required at the time the vehicle was manufactured which was 30 miles per hour.
FHWA also tested one of the Grand Cherokee's peer vehicles, the Ford Explorer. The tests on this 1995 model were conducted at even higher speeds, at 70 and 75 miles per hour, and the gas tank did not rupture.
We should point out, that the gas tank in the Explorer is placed in front of the rear axle.
"Stacey's car rolled multiple times," her dad Steve says.
You can still see the gas line where fuel poured out of Stacey's car here art the scene. But what gives the Mayer's some measure of comfort is knowing that Stacey likely was unaware of what was about to happen after her car was hit.
NHTSA would not talk on camera because of their ongoing investigation, and has not given any timetable for when they will reach a decision.
But in their Office of Defects Investigation resume, NHTSA says "that rear-impact-related tank failure and vehicle fires are more prevalent in the Jeep Grand Cherokee than in non-Jeep vehicles."
And, just last week NHTSA added the 1993 to 2001 Jeep Cherokee and the 2002 to 2007 Jeep Liberty vehicles to their investigation. Those vehicles also have the gas tank behind the rear axle.
NHTSA said "the agency's analysis of it's FARS data for the peer vehicles and three Jeep models shows a higher incidence of rear impact, fatal fire crashes for the Jeep products."
In a statement, the company tells 9 News Now, the "the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees are neither defective nor do their fuel systems pose an unreasonable risk to motor safety in rear impact collisions."
And, they say "rear impacts resulting in fire are extremely rare, rear impacts resulting in fire occur no more often in 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles than in peer vehicles, and the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles are at no greater risk of exposure to fire in rear end collisions than peer vehicles."
As for the expanded investigation the company says, "We expect that a similar analysis of subject vehicles recently added to this investigation, which NHTSA generally conducts at the EA [Engineering Analysis] stage, would support a similar conclusion."
Stacey's mom Susan says, "I just wonder if any of their children had been lost in a car where there was a poor design, how they'd feel about just nothing being done."
"Do you believe that Stacey would be alive today, had she not been in that vehicle?' 9 News Now Anchor and Consumer correspondent Lesli Foster asked Stacey's dad Steve.
"I think so, yes," he says.
In 2005, Chrysler moved the gas tank in the Jeep Grand Cherokee ahead of the axle. The company tells us they did that to make more room for cargo space. Chrysler is cooperating with the expanded probe, and says it's important to note that this is just an investigation and NOT a recall.
According to the Center for Auto Safety, not one person has died a fiery death as a result of the fuel tank in the 2005 models going forward.
We know that there are at least 23,000 of the 1993 to 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees still registered for use in the District of Columbia and Maryland. Virginia does not keep records on a particular make and model.
And, these accidents are still happening. According to police records, one man died back in November on Interstate 4 in Lake Mary, Florida when he couldn't get out of a burning Jeep.
And, a 4 year old boy in Bainbridge, Georgia, died on March 6th of this year when the Jeep Grand Cherokee he was in was struck from the back and caught fire.
The Center for Auto Safety asked for both of these incidents to be included in NHTSA's investigation.
To learn more on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's investigation on the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee, click here.
Written by Lesli Foster and Stephanie Wilson
9 News Now and wusa9.com