Due to a serious, hidden flaw in Windstar vans that Ford took years to do anything about, alleges his family, 28-year-old Sean Bowman of Massachusetts was killed on his way to pick up his two young daughters.
"They asked, 'When is Dad going to get here?'" said Justine Bowman, Sean's widow. "We sat them down and had to tell them. It was heartbreaking. It was screams and crying for hours."
The safety defect in the Windstar's rear axle, which makes it vulnerable to snapping in half unexpectedly due to corrosion from road salt, has led to more than 800 reported incidents over 10 years, allegedly including Bowman's fatal crash in October. As detailed in a report to air on "World News with Diane Sawyer" tonight, Ford didn't issue its voluntary recall until this August, recalling nearly 500,000 Windstars manufactured between 1998 and 2003 and in use in states where winter weather increases the likelihood of corrosion.
A week after Bowman's axle broke and he died in a crash, a Ford recall notice arrived at the Bowman home, warning that the rear axle in some Windstar vans "could potentially fracture . . . which could increase the risk of a crash." The family believes that he lost control of the car and crashed when the rear axle broke, though police are still investigating the cause of the accident and no official cause has been determined.
Had Sean Bowman received his recall notice just a week prior, alleges his widow Justine, "he would still be alive, my kids would still have their father, and he wouldn't have driven that if he received that notice."
Before the recall, Ford had long maintained that there was little chance of an accident with a broken axle on the Windstar, and no need for an expensive recall. Then, this past June, federal safety officials conducted videotaped safety tests.
At 35 miles per hour, once the axle broke, only the side stability bars seemed to keep the van from tipping over, even with a professional driver behind the wheel.
Despite more than 200 reported incidents in the government's own database, the NHTSA tests were ordered only after a critical article appeared in the New York Times in May.
"I just don't understand how an agency that claims to be reviewing all of these complaints would have missed something like that," said reporter Chris Jensen, the author of the New York Times article.
After Jensen's article appeared, NHTSA conducted its evaluation, including the videotaped tests. In August, Ford issued its voluntary recall.
A NHTSA spokesperson told ABC News that when it began its investigation of Windstar rear axles in May 2010, it was only aware of two crashes and was unaware of any fatalities. "Nevertheless, NHTSA immediately began testing the vehicles for this issue, and presented Ford with findings that eventually influenced its recall."
Safety experts question why, given what's seen in the tests and the hundreds of reported incidents, it took Ford so long to admit the problem with the Windstar's axle.
Said Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies, "Ford had many opportunities to remedy this problem over the years and instead they continued to push customers away, and if there was a problem it was the driver's fault. Now we see a tragic death that could have been prevented had Ford acted sooner."
In a statement, a Ford spokesperson said the automaker's evaluations at the time of of NHTSA's investigation led to the conclusion that "a rear axle fracture was not expected to result in loss of vehicle control, and the likelihood of a related accident or injury was extremely low."
However, said the spokesperson, "When Ford received more recent allegations of additional accidents in the summer of 2010, we re-evaluated the potential effect of rear axle fracture and decided to conduct a safety recall."
This will be the first Christmas for Sean Bowman's family without dad.
Said Justine Bowman, "Having my oldest daughter come to me and tell me, 'I just want to hug him and I can't. I will never get to hug him again'-- It's not right. It could have been prevented."