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Roberts & Roberts on DATELINE NBC

Announcer : An in-depth DATELINE investigation uncovered documents and stories you haven’t heard.

Ms. CATHY TAYLOR : Our world just collapsed. The tread came off and that—that was it.

Announcer: Coming up, a Firestone tire disintegrated, killing her daughter. Now she’s determined to get justice.

Ms. CATHY TAYLOR: There’s not a minute of the day that I don’t miss Jessica. But I know that Jessica would want me to go on and stop this.

Announcer: How a mother’s pain opened everyone’s eyes.

DENNIS MURPHY reporting: (Voiceover) Long before this summer’s recall, 2000 was shaping up as a banner year for Firestone. The tiremaker celebrated its 100th anniversary with a burst of fireworks. The Indy 500 winner roared down the straightaway to victory on his set of Firestone 500s. (Firestone’s celebration withfireworks; Indy 500 winner crosses thefinish line)

MURPHY: And Firestone’s parent company was running a strong number two in the US marketplace. By all outward appearances, Firestone was on a roll.

(Voiceover) That is, until this Texas mother refused to strike a deal with the company and reports of catastrophic Firestone tire failures starting spilling out.

(Jessica’s mother walking; tread is pulled off Firestone tire)

Ms. CATHY TAYLOR: I know that Jessica would want me to go on and stop this.

MURPHY: (Voiceover) July 1996, Firestone workers here stamp out tire number VDHL I PM. Two years later, that very tire would end up on a Ford Explorer owned by that Texas mom, Cathy Taylor. By October 1996, a Houston, Texas TV station, KPRC, reports on a series of accidents involving Firestone tires there.

(Cathy Taylor walking; accident scene)

Mr. RICK PAT: Last thing I remember is smashing into the guardrail and going up and over.

JANE PAULEY: Returning to our story. In 1990, Ford introduced its Explorer SUV outfitted with Firestone tires. But two years later, problems begin to appear along with lawsuits. One accident involves the daughter of a woman in Texas whose determination to go to court puts both Ford and Firestone and the federal government on the hot seat and in the headlines.

Ms. TAYLOR: Jessica was a very bubbly child. She loved to make people happy.

MURPHY: (Voiceover) Cathy Taylor, a Texas mother, will grieve forever the events of October 16th, 1998, the day her daughter, Jessica, is riding in the front seat of the family’s Ford Explorer. The 14-year-old cheerleader is wearing a seat belt and a shoulder strap. But suddenly, according to her mom, a Firestone ATX tire with 15,000 miles on it disintegrates without warning. The driver loses control and the Explorer rolls. Jessica Taylor is killed.

(Photos of Jessica Taylor; Ford Explorer)

Ms. TAYLOR: My world just collapsed. They said that the tire just exploded. The tread came off, and that was it.

MURPHY: (Voiceover) Firestone, she says, offers her a settlement. But she refuses. And today, she blames both Firestone and Ford for her daughter’s death.

(Firestone building)

Ms. TAYLOR: There’s no way there would be this many deaths and this many accidents without them seeing a pattern. But, they didn’t want the consumer to see the pattern.

MURPHY: (Voiceover) Both Firestone and the Ford dealer she is suing deny responsibility for the accident. By late October 1998, barely a week after Jessica’s death, another attorney, Randell Roberts begins investigating. Roberts has no idea whether his client’s death is an isolated case. So, he says he calls the government safety agency, NHTSA, to see what it knows. (Documents; Randell Roberts looks at documents)

HOCKENBERRY: (Voiceover) Keep in mind this is only months after State Farm researcher Sam Boyden says he had phoned and emailed NHTSA about 21 incidents of Firestone tire failures. Even so, the Texas attorney for Cathy Taylor, Randell Roberts, says he’s told by the government that it has received no significant reports about Firestone tire failures.

(Randell Roberts looks at documents; Firestone tire)

MURPHY: Within weeks of the KHOU-TV report, the Texas mom’s attorney, Randell Roberts gets a major break in his case.

(Voiceover) The first public sign that the scope of the tire failure cases is far wider than the government or the public knew.

(Photo of wrecked Explorer and tire)

MURPHY: (Voiceover) On March I st, 2000, under court order, Firestone finally dumps thousands of internal records on Roberts’ doorstep. As Roberts sifts through the mountain of customer complaints submitted to Firestone, he says he finds the totals are adding up. Nearly 1100 complaints of tread separation on ATX tires and 57 lawsuits, directly from Firestone’s own records. It is information that would have been kept secret in Firestone’s files, if it weren’t for that Texas mom who refused to settle and stay quiet.

(Files; tire; woman)

Ms. TAYLOR: By offering me a settlement, they want me to shut my mouth. And I won’t shut my mouth until this problem is solved.

AUGUST 9,2000

MURPHY: (Voiceover) August 9th, 2000, under mounting pressure, Firestone announces a massive recall. More than 6.5 million tires: 15-inch ATX, ATX H from all plants and 15-inch wilderness ATs made by its plant here in Decatur.

Ms. TAYLOR: I won’t be quiet. My son asked me this week, ‘Mom, what are we getting Jessica for her birthday? Her birthday is the 24th of this month. What do you say to a thirteen year old who wants to know what he’s getting his sister for her birthday?

(Voiceover) There’s not much you can get for a 16-year-old child that’s in a cemetery.

*This version does not reflect the complete Dateline program.

Copyright 2000 NBCInc.

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