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Bridgestone/Firestone to airlift tires from Japan plants

Retirees to testify that inspection workload was 100 per hour

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. plans to airlift thousands of tires to the United States from its plants in Japan to alleviate a nationwide shortage caused by a recall of 6.5 million tires.

The first shipment of 5,000 tires was to leave Wednesday, and the company planned at least 10 more through Sunday.

Earlier this month, Nashville-based Bridgestone/Firestone recalled P235/75R15 ATX and ATX II tires as well as 15-inch Wilderness AT tires made at a Decatur, Ill., plant.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating 62 deaths and more than 100 injuries possibly linked to the tires. In many cases, the tread separated from the tire, causing a blowout and a rollover accident.

Retired employees of the company's Decatur plant were expected to testify Wednesday that inspectors were pressed to examine 100 tires an hour — too many to do an adequate job, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

The testimony was to be given as lawyers begin taking depositions in a Florida personal-injury case against the company.

Firestone spokeswoman Christine Karbowiak said the former employees are "disgruntled."

"Obviously we stand by our processes and procedures," she told the newspaper. "Out of 2,100 Decatur employees, we have a small handful of folks who are making allegations."

Several attorneys have filed lawsuits seeking class-action status to represent consumers affected by the recall, which is expected to cost the company $350 million. Attorneys general in several states also are investigating the safety of the tires and the expediency of the recall.

The Center for Auto Safety has filed a lawsuit contending 12 million more Firestone tires — all ATX, ATX II and Wilderness ATs still on the road — should be recalled.

The safety advocacy group successfully pushed for 1970s recalls of the Ford Pinto and 14.5 million Firestone 500 tires.

Additionally, Bridgestone/Firestone is facing the threat of a strike at nine of its plants.

On Monday, Ford Motor Co. said it would temporarily halt production at three plants to make more than 70,000 replacement tires available to consumers.

The tires were standard equipment on some Ford trucks and sports utility vehicles, including the Explorer.

Barry Green, executive vice president of Lippincott & Margulies Inc., an image consultant firm based in New York, said the troubles facing Bridgestone/Firestone mean the company must work to regain the trust of corporations and consumers.

"It's a long, long road for them," he said. "I think they just have to be responsible to the marketplace and do what's right. They've lost not only customers, they've lost confidence with the automotive industry."