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FHP: Firestone tire a factor in I-75 crash that killed two

Published Sep. 10, 2005

While the safety of two Firestone tire models has been debated nationwide for months, Florida troopers said Wednesday another model may to be blame for the deaths of a St. Petersburg mother and her teenage son.

JoAnn Carmichael, 49, and Mark Carmichael, 14, were killed when a rear tire _ which had not been recalled _ ripped apart on Interstate 75 Saturday as they headed home from a camping trip.

The 1996 Ford Explorer flipped twice just outside Ocala and hit a light pole before coming to rest upside down.

Ronald Carmichael, 47, and his oldest son, 15-year-old Matthew, who was behind the wheel, were taken to the hospital.

The tire, a Baja Widetrack radial made by Bridgestone/Firestone, was one of the models the federal government urged the tire manufacturer to replace last year. The company refused.

The deaths raise to 43 the number of people killed in Florida since 1997 in sport utility vehicles equipped with Firestone tires, a St. Petersburg Times analysis shows.

Thirteen of them were in vehicles equipped with Firestone tires not recalled and still on the road, tires that may suffer from the same flaws that caused tread separations on those recalled last year.

"The wreck appears to be the direct result of tire failure," said Capt. Jeff Succi of the Florida Highway Patrol. "Tire failure and inexperience, that's what caused this."

The tread came apart on the passenger-side rear tire, causing Matthew to lose control of the vehicle, Succi said. Matthew has a learner's permit, allowing him to drive with an adult.

The front two tires were recently replaced with another brand of tires, Succi said. But the rear tires, the most vulnerable during a crash, were both Baja Widetrack radials.

Ford and Firestone officials contacted this week said they did not know about the accident and that it would be difficult to comment without knowing all the details of the crash.

"We take any accident that occurs on our tires seriously," Firestone spokeswoman Jill Bratina said. "Our sympathies go out to the family."

Ford and Firestone have engaged in a nasty, public feud for months about which company should be held responsible for the scores of deadly accidents across the nation.

A database compiled by the federal agency that oversees the auto industry shows that five other accidents have occurred nationwide with Baja Widetrack radials. The number of crashes is likely higher, though, because many people did not know what caused their accidents until years later or did not keep track of the type of tires they used.

"This is a tragic accident, and our sympathy goes out to the family," Ford spokesman Mike Vaughn said.

The Carmichaels were wearing seat belts, Succi said. JoAnn and Mark Carmichael, who were in the back, were thrown from the vehicle and died instantly. Ronald and Matthew Carmichael, who were in the front, had to be removed with rescue equipment.

Matthew was flown to Shands Hospital in Gainesville, where he was treated and released this week. Ronald Carmichael was taken to Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala. He was listed in stable condition Wednesday.

"They were a friendly family," said Mary Myers, who lives in the Carmichaels' Pinellas Point neighborhood. "Even my dog, Smurf, would run over to their house."

The Carmichaels, who lived in the area at least a decade, easily made friends with their neighbors. Matthew and Mark grew up with other children in the area, playing street hockey and getting together for sleepovers.

The two boys attended Holy Name of Jesus School, a Catholic school in Gulfport. Matthew graduated from eighth grade two years ago and will be an 11th-grader at St. Petersburg Catholic High School. Mark left after the seventh grade, completing eighth grade at St. Jude's.

Teachers called students and former students at Holy Name of Jesus this week to let them know about the accident.

"The kids are just devastated," said Mary Jo Cloonan, who taught Matthew and Mark.

While Matthew was more reserved, teachers say his younger brother was more outgoing and full of humor. "He always made his presence known," teacher Christine Downs said.

Both teenagers were on the honor roll, played soccer, loved to surf and excelled with computers.

Ronald Carmichael has workedas a pharmacist at the Walgreens on 62nd Avenue S since last year. His wife was a respiratory therapist.

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.