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Congressional staff visits Ford, then heads to Bridgestone/Firestone

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DEARBORN, Mich. — Congressional staffers visited Ford Motor Co.'s headquarters on Friday to investigate when the automaker may have known there was a problem with some Firestone tires.

"We're pleased by the level of cooperation by Ford officials. They were very helpful," one of the three staffers, Tom DiLenge, said before leaving Ford headquarters Friday.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley, R-Va., said the staffers would meet with Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. officials Monday at the company's headquarters in Nashville, Tenn.

Bridgestone/Firestone announced a recall on Aug. 9 of 6.5 million P235/75R15 size Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, often found on Ford Explorers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is conducting an investigation of all 47 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, which have been the source of hundreds of complaints including allegations of at least 62 deaths and 100 injuries.

DiLenge, committee deputy chief counsel for oversight and investigations, said the focus of Friday's visit was to answer "what did Ford know and when did they know it. These are the very important questions we'll be asking (Firestone)."

He declined to characterize what the staffers found during their more than 8-hour visit. They spoke with Ford executives and analyzed the automaker's data that led to the recall.

DiLenge said they expected to finish the inquiry as "fully, completely, and quickly as we can." He didn't offer a time frame.

Jason Vines, a spokesman for Ford, said "it was an open meeting, much like what we've told customers and the media," since the recall.

"We told them what we knew," about the tread separations, he said.

Bridgestone/Firestone said Friday that it will hire independent experts to analyze accidents that have been linked to the Firestone tires. The company said in a statement that it will use experts in the tire industry, manufacturing and academia.

"We are committed to finding out what, if any, problems may have led to the incidents involving the affected tires," said John Lampe, executive vice president of Bridgestone/Firestone. "We continue to have a team of engineers and experts working around the clock on this issue. We will rely on an independent expert to examine and verify our own internal investigation process."

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., has invited Ford and Firestone officials to testify at a Sept. 6 hearing on the tires and the recall.

In another development, The Arizona Republic reported Friday that Laurie Arehart of Phoenix said a Wilderness tire on her newly purchased Ford Explorer shredded its tread Tuesday on a Phoenix freeway, damaging the vehicle while she and her 2-year-old daughter were in it.

Arehart said she had been told by a Firestone dealer that her tires were made in Canada and were safe.

Ford spokesman Jon Harmon said he couldn't comment on Arehart's case because Ford has not seen the specifics of it.

Also Friday, as Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater was preparing to board Air Force One for a trip to Africa with President Clinton, reporters asked whether the government wanted Bridgestone/Firestone to issue a wider recall.

"We are encouraging it," he said.

Transportation Department communications staff later called reporters to clarify Slater's remarks. A spokesman said that the staff reached Slater aboard Air Force One, and he told them he did not mean to suggest that the government is calling for a wider recall.

On the Net: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: www.nhtsa.gov

Bridgestone/Firestone: www.bridgestone-firestone.com

Ford Motor Co.: www.ford.com