Family escapes when Kia suddenly stalls, erupts in fire on California freeway
Jessica Hernandez treated her mom to a birthday lunch in Manhattan Beach on a warm, sunny afternoon this past weekend. As they headed home to Lynwood, they chatted about this and that — Hernandez at the wheel of her 2015 Kia Forte, her mom by her side, her boyfriend and 16-year-old son in back seat.
They were transitioning onto the northbound 110 Freeway from the 91 in South Los Angeles on Saturday, March 30, when Hernandez noticed other drivers waving at her. Her car stalled. It was going downhill, so they kept rolling — and then thick, black smoke poured in through the air conditioning vent.
“Get out!” her boyfriend yelled.
Hernandez panicked. Her mother uses a walker and had kicked off her shoes. She steered to the side of the road as best she could. The men jumped out to help her mother escape. “You could feel the heat,” Hernandez said.
As they scrambled away from the car, the Kia was engulfed in flames and completely gutted. With it went her mother’s walker, as well as her medications.
“It was terrifying,” Hernandez said on Tuesday. “I couldn’t believe it was happening. No light went on saying something was wrong. My car has been fine.”
Little did Hernandez know that, at almost the same moment, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had agreed to investigate mysterious noncrash fires in some Kia and Hyundai vehicles — about nine months after a consumer group beseeched the NHTSA to do just that.
The Forte, however, is not on that list.
“It’s very unfortunate because Kia needs to fix this,” Hernandez said.
Kia did not return requests for comment on Hernandez’s situation, but on Monday the automaker issued a statement saying that customer safety and satisfaction are its top concerns.
Hernandez’s Forte was a 2015 model with about 90,000 miles. Kia had recalled some earlier Forte models for electrical system problems in 2015, problems that could lead to cooling fan resistors overheating and melting, which could then increase the risk of vehicle fires, according to the recall notice.
Kia and Hyundai — which are separate companies with the same corporate parent — have recalled more than 1 million cars in the wake of fire claims and other issues. That includes the Kia Soul (model years 2012-2016), Hyundai Tucson (2011-2013), Kia Sportage (2011-2012) and Kia Sedona (2015-18).
The NHTSA’s probes, announced Monday, will gather information on the 2011-2014 Kia Optima and Sorento, 2010-2015 Kia Soul, and 2011-2014 Hyundai Sonata and Sante Fe.
Might Hernandez’s issue be related?
“Essentially, we have a large fleet spanning four and eight years, if not more, regularly catching on fire in noncrash situations,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, the nonprofit that pushed the NHTSA to open its probe.
“As we saw with the NHTSA announcement yesterday, the manufacturers have a significantly higher number of fire reports than they have been letting on. It’s long past the point for Kia or Hyundai to suggest that these things are unique and unusual or coincidental.”
When the Center for Auto Safety asked the federal government to investigate last year, it had gathered information on 120 noncrash fires. The manufacturers, it turns out, have logged many, many more — for a total of 3,125 reports of noncrash fires, according to the NHTSA.
‘A tremendous problem’
“What’s clearly connected is there’s an ongoing series of reports of noncrash fires involving these vehicles,” Levine said. “The federal probe is a positive first step, but an investigation doesn’t fix the problem. What we want to see is an effective repair. Clearly, the manufacturers are having a tremendous problem.”
It’s Hernandez’s problem now, too.
She works as a patient advocate at a surgery center in Culver City. She missed work Monday for lack of transportation, and must depend on others for rides until Kia and/or her insurance company come through with a rental. She made reports to Kia and the NHTSA, and is unclear what remedy awaits.
“As time goes by, I’m getting more angry about the situation,” she said. “Kia needs to resolve this issue. It was a scary moment and no one should go through this. I could only imagine babies and their car seats and I don’t want anything like that to happen. We need to be heard and something has to be done.”