Two dead after Crown Victoria explodes in New York wreck

Saturday, December 21, 2002

YONKERS, N.Y. -- A sport utility vehicle rammed into a state trooper's cruiser on the side of the road and burst into flames, killing the trooper and driver and injuring six others, at least five seriously.

The police cruiser was a Ford Crown Victoria -- a make that police departments have alleged is prone to catch fire when struck from the rear at high speed. At least a dozen other officers in the country have been killed in fiery crashes in Crown Victorias since 1983.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in October that an investigation showed the car exceeds federal standards for fuel system safety, and the rate of fires was not much greater than with Chevrolet Caprice police cars.

In September, Ford agreed to pay to install shields around the gas tanks on police-issued Crown Victorias. Some 350,000 police cruisers across the country were to be retrofitted -- about 80 percent of police cars on the road.

State Police Capt. Frank Koehler said cars in the force are being retrofitted, but Trooper Robert Ambrose's vehicle, a 2000 model, had not been. He did not know how many state police cars have been revamped.

Thursday's accident began when the Jeep Cherokee crashed into another car while trying to change lanes, authorities said.

The Jeep bounced off the car and plowed into the rear of the police cruiser, where Ambrose sat preparing an accident report for a fender-bender.

The impact triggered a chain reaction involving three other vehicles.

Autopsies were under way to determine whether the trooper and SUV driver were killed in the crash or by the ensuing fire, but witnesses said they saw the trooper struggling to get out of his burning car.

Mike Lepratto, 27, of Yonkers, said he saw a police officer "smacking the window of the (trooper's) car with a shovel, trying to get him out."

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