On a December night in a town on South Africa’s south coast, Reshall Jimmy’s car burst into flames.
The 33-year-old was on vacation. A video of the incident that aired in South African media showed fire shooting out of the front of the car on the driver’s side as passers-by stopped their cars, frightened to approach. Within a minute, the front of the car was engulfed in fire. The observers desperately tried to call police and emergency services.
“Is there anyone in the car?” one man asked.
“We don’t know,” another shouted, his voice thick with worry.
When Reshall’s body was pulled from the car, he was unrecognizable. Only the soles of his feet remained unburned.
After more than a year and nearly 50 fires involving Ford Kuga SUVs, Ford South Africa on Monday announced that it was recalling 4,556 1.6-liter Kugas manufactured in Spain. Jimmy’s family announced Tuesday that it plans to file a class-action lawsuit against Ford over its failure to get the faulty vehicles off the road more swiftly.
The model is equivalent to the Escape in the U.S., which has been subject to several recalls in recent years, including one in 2012 for an engine fire problem.
The Kuga is also sold throughout Europe. Ford has blamed the problem in part on the hotter weather in South Africa, but also said that cars are configured differently for different countries.
Ford’s action came after a campaign by South Africans on Twitter and in an online petition demanding a recall, and reports in South African media last year that insurance companies had alerted Ford to the problem.
A police report blamed an electrical problem behind the dashboard for the fire that killed Jimmy. Ford South Africa has claimed the fire began in the back of the car.
A Johannesburg businessman, Warren Krog, said he plans to join the class action against Ford. He was driving to work Thursday when he saw wisps of white smoke coming from his engine, stopped and opened the hood.
“Under the [windshield] area, I could see fire. I got a tremendous fright,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I ran around the car getting things out. I got my laptop, my house keys, anything I could think of. I was panicking.”
Flames had engulfed the front of the car before a fire brigade arrived 15 minutes later and doused them.
“After the fire was put out, one of the firemen told me I was extremely lucky I got out of the car so quickly. If the fire had taken hold of the electrical components of the engine bay, it locks your vehicle. It messes up your electrics and you can’t open your windows or doors,” he said.
“I really think my guardian angels were with me. I was supposed to take my daughter and her friend to school that day. It makes me shudder to think that we all could have been trapped in a burning vehicle.”
Scores of fires have been reported since January 2016, including 11 so far this January. In one incident, a Pretoria woman, Zane Verhoef, was trapped in a burning Kuga in January 2016 when her feet were caught, according to South African media. Her 11-year-old daughter flagged down a driver, who managed to drag Verhoef out of the burning car.
As fires continued to break out in January, pressure on Ford mounted on Twitter.
Asked at a press conference Tuesday what he wanted from Ford, Reshall Jimmy’s brother, Kaveen said, “For a start, to stop making a mockery of my brother’s death.” He called on Ford to accept responsibility for the death and to apologize to their mother.
“I can account for every minute from the 4th of December that we’ve lost him and everything we’ve done for the last year and that’s what Ford’s forced us to do. They’ve forced us to relive this loss every day, and it gets heavier and heavier for us to deal with,” he said.
Ford sent text messages to drivers in December calling on them to bring cars in for an urgent maintenance check, but Jimmy’s sister, Renisha, said cars continued to catch fire after being checked.
“For me, they should have taken these cars off the road,” she said Tuesday.
Krog said he emailed the address given in the text message and also tried to call the number supplied but there was no response. He contacted a Ford dealer in early January, and was given an appointment on Jan. 18.
“I said, ‘Is it safe for me to drive my car until the 18th?’ The gentleman said, ‘Just check the coolant and if there’s liquid in it, it’s fine.’ That’s absolute negligence.”
Company chief executive Jeff Nemeth said in a radio interview Monday that the fires were believed to be caused by overheating due to lack of coolant circulation, leading to a crack in the cylinder head, causing oil to leak onto the hot engine and ignite. The recall involves cars being checked by Ford dealer staff and having certain components replaced.
Nemeth said a Ford forensic investigator from Detroit examined Reshall Jimmy’s car in December 2016 and concluded that the car didn’t burn due to an engine fire.
“We believe that that incident is a separate incident, unrelated to the causes of these Kugas that were recalled today,” he said. He added that he only knew of 39 fires that Ford owners had reported to the company.
Asked why Ford took so long to recall the vehicles, Nemeth said the company was trying to understand what was going on with the vehicles.
“What’s really important is we look at a body of data, right? And so we’re constantly trying to understand what’s happened to these vehicles and, as you can imagine, as a fire occurs, just the physical act of the fire consumes the evidence of why it happened.
“So we’ve been investigating. We shipped 15 engines back to the U.S. and Europe in the course of 2016 so our engineers could start understanding what was going on.”