WHITMAN, Mass. – Sean Bowman was driving with a classmate to community college when his Ford Windstar's rear axle cracked in half, sending the minivan careening into a building and killing him, his family says.
One week later, the family says, a safety recall notice from Ford arrived in the mail. It said the 2001 Windstar's axle should be checked out because it could corrode and break.
Now Bowman's relatives — and some safety experts — are accusing Ford of failing to give the recall the urgency it deserved.
Bowman's widow, Justine Bowman, called it a "stealth" recall.
"This is not your average, everyday recall. This is your rear axle can break, you can lose control of your vehicle, your wheels can fall off," she told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Ford Motor Co. declined to comment on Bowman's case or why the family says it got its notice more than six weeks after the automaker announced the recall in August. But Ford said the recall was no secret. The announcement was carried by the AP and other organizations at the time.
"Ford is committed to safety and notifying customers of recall," said spokesman Wes Sherwood. "We send individualized letters to customers with affected vehicles and go beyond government requirements for recall notifications."
Automakers are required by federal law to notify owners by mail "within a reasonable amount of time," according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And owners typically are notified within 30 days. Industry officials say notifications take time because automakers rely primarily on states' motor vehicle records to determine who owns the vehicles.
Representatives of NHTSA and the U.S. Transportation Department did not immediately comment Wednesday night on how Ford handled the recall.
In the meantime, Ford appears to be having trouble keeping up with the size of the recall. Some repair parts are unavailable, and one Windstar owner told the AP her car has been sitting at a dealership awaiting repair for four months.
Ford announced on Aug. 27 that it was recalling 575,000 older-model Windstars in the U.S. and Canada. The recall covered vehicles from model years 1998 to 2003 that were sold in states where the heavy use of road salt can cause more corrosion, including New England, the mid-Atlantic and the Great Lakes region.
The automaker said that as of September, 950 complaints about the axles were filed with NHTSA, the most recent figures available. The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer safety group, said the defect had been blamed for eight crashes and three injuries as of September. Ford said none of the injuries was serious.
After an inquiry about Bowman's case from the AP on Wednesday, Ford revealed that it had informed the government last month that it was expanding its recall. Ford did not issue a press release about the expansion because it normally waits for NHTSA to analyze and release the information, Sherwood said.
The automaker said it was adding 37,000 minivans to the initial recall, bringing the total number of Windstars covered to 612,000 in the U.S. and Canada. The company said it began notifying owners of the 37,000 additional Windstars on Dec. 6. The recall was expanded to Utah and to all 2003 vehicles in the road-salt states.
Complaints about Windstar axle cracks date back to at least December 2000, when an owner reported to NHTSA that a mechanic found a cracked rear axle in a 2000 minivan. Complaints were sporadic for the next several years but became more frequent in mid-2008, according to the NHTSA database reviewed by the AP.
In a November advisory posted on its website and covered by the AP and other news organizations, NHTSA urged Windstar owners to bring their vehicles to a dealership immediately to be examined for signs of rear-axle corrosion. NHTSA said at the time that only about 75,000 recalled vehicles had been brought to dealers, and it issued the advisory because of the severity of the defect.
"It really is an ineffective recall because the vehicles are still on the road," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "They didn't treat it as the safety hazard that it really is. They treated it as a business issue."
In an Oct. 28 letter to U.S. dealers, Ford said it would begin stocking parts in November that would allow mechanics to reinforce axles that did not yet have cracks. It told dealers replacement rear axles wouldn't be available until 2011.
In a separate customer information sheet, Ford said parts for the permanent repair were not available and apologized "for any inconvenience this part shortage may cause you." Ford said it was working with its suppliers to speed up the parts' availability.
Typically, 70 percent of recalled vehicles get fixed within 18 months, according to NHTSA. The agency said it did not know the industry average for fixing vehicles within the first few months of a recall.
On the day of the crash, Bowman, a 28-year-old Coast Guard veteran with two daughters, ages 4 and 7, was on his way to a community college, where he was studying architectural design. Photos of the crash provided by his family show the rear axle broken in half, with rust visible.
The family's lawyer, Rick Brody, said he has hired private experts to investigate the cause of the accident. Both concluded the vehicle's axle "broke in half — from the inside — from corrosion," Brody said.
A NHTSA spokeswoman said the agency sent a team to inspect Bowman's vehicle following the Oct. 15 crash but had not reached any conclusions in the case.
Justine Bowman said she is considering suing Ford. She said the family is going public to help avoid more such tragedies.
"People buy these cars because they have children and they need the space," she said. "I don't want this to happen to any other family."
One of the complaints received by NHTSA was filed by Lisa Browning, 46, of Blue Point, N.Y., a mother of three who discovered a crack in her Windstar axle during an oil change in May.
"I called Ford and they basically told me I was out of warranty, I was out of luck," Browning said Wednesday. "I was really surprised by Ford's lack of concern over the safety of children and families."
She said she went back to Ford days after the recall was announced in August and turned in her car. It still has not been repaired because Ford doesn't have the parts, she said. Instead, Ford is paying for a rental until her van can be fixed. She was told the repair would take seven months.
Associated Press Writers Ken Thomas in Washington and Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this story.