Tammy Graham drove her 2001 Ford Escape for 11 years; now, it sits in the back lot of an auto shop near her home in Baytown, TX, outside of Houston.
The front bumper is crushed in, the airbags deployed and goldfish are still scattered in the back where her son sat before the SUV accelerated out of control and crashed less than two months ago.
"We had four vehicles in the garage," she said, "all Fords."
Graham's husband, James, races Fords. Their 9-year-old son Hunter collects them.
"We were huge Ford fans," she said.
A NEARLY DEADLY CRASH
That all changed one day in June when she was driving with her two young sons to go pick out Father's Day presents.
Driving on the freeway, "I started accelerating," she said, "and it went all the way down to the floor." She said she looked at the speedometer and it read 80 mph.
"I tried to tap the brake," she said, but it didn't help. "Then I stood on the brake with both feet and it was still going very fast."
She was coming up on an intersection with cars backed up at a stoplight. There was a ditch on one side of her and the freeway on the other. "There was nowhere else for me to go," she said.
She remembered pulling the emergency brake but the Escape still didn't slow down.
"So I told my sons, ‘Hold on, Mommy can't stop the car,'" she said.
The police report says "she turned the vehicle to the left and attempted to drag the vehicle along the freeway wall to make it slow gradually." But Graham turned the SUV too sharply, according to the report, and "and the front struck the wall in full force."
"The airbag deployed and I thought I was seeing the bright lights of heaven," Graham said.
The first people to the scene to help her and her sons were workers at a Ford dealership right across the street from the accident. Graham credits them with helping save their lives.
A BIGGER PROBLEM?
Graham's SUV crashed in Texas after the ABC15 Investigators began reporting on a January crash in Payson that killed 17-year-old Saige Bloom.
Her 2002 Escape accelerated out of control as she drove the car for the first time on January 27 of this year. The SUV eventually crashed, throwing Bloom from the vehicle. She died hours later.
An inspector hired by the Bloom family showed what he says caused the acceleration in that Escape – a speed control cable broken, stuck under the engine cover, forcing the throttle open – and the vehicle to travel at high speeds.
In Texas, pictures taken by the Grahams under the hood of their Escape, show the same thing. An inspection done by the same expert showed the same thing a few weeks later.
On July 26, after months of reporting by the ABC15 Investigators and a government investigation into the problem was launched, Ford Motor Company voluntarily recalled nearly 500,000 2001-2004 Escapes .
Mazda recalled more than 200,000 Tributes , a sibling of the Escape, shortly after for the same problem.
But, instead of replacing the speed, or cruise control cable, both automakers say they will fix the stuck throttle problem by raising the engine cover. If it's high enough, it will prevent the cable from sticking under it.
But some auto safety experts are saying that is the wrong approach.
"They're not fixing the underlying defect, which is the cruise control cable," according to Clarence Ditlow with the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C.
He is pushing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ( NHTSA) to reject Ford's fix and investigate why they didn't issue a recall years ago.
NHTSA tells ABC15 it is still investigating this issue even though both carmakers issued recalls.
A 7-YEAR-OLD WARNING
The ABC15 Investigators found that Ford warned its dealers of a speed control cable issue seven years ago.
In October 2005, the automaker sent its dealers a service bulletin update warning dealers that a botched recall repair on a different cable could cause damage to the speed control cable – the same one that was found damaged in both Saige Bloom's and Tammy Graham's wrecked Escapes.
"Clearly, they knew as of October 2005 there was a problem with the cruise control cable," Ditlow said, "that it was defective."
Ford tells the ABC15 Investigators, "we had some anecdotal knowledge from our dealers that they had to replace some speed control cables because of damage during the accelerator cable repairs." That's what led the company to issue the service update.
But the automaker denies it knew that the damage could lead to potentially deadly stuck throttles. "Ford hadn't noted an unusual number of reports of non-functioning speed control due to a bent or improperly positioned cable," Ford wrote in an email message.
Ford stressed that a speed control cable can become damaged in a
number of different ways and stands behind its repair, telling ABC15 "a non-functioning speed control system doesn't represent a safety issue, therefore we thought the update to the recall instructions was sufficient to address the issue."
The Graham family tells ABC15 that they don't believe the recall fixes the root cause of the problem that caused their accident.
"I had the chance of killing people I love in my car," Tammy Graham said, "and killing people I didn't know – other people's moms, other people's dads, other people's kids. And I wasn't in control of it."
If Ford had issued the recall 7 years ago, Graham thinks it could have prevented the emotional scars her family is fighting through now. She said her sons are afraid to get in the car and she spends nights awake, reliving the experience, wishing she had known to put the car in neutral and worrying who might be next.
"Every family that's getting in those cars right now," she said, "all the people who have no idea that there's this time bomb just sitting out there that can take these people out."