By Joe Beck
Jenelle Embrey was one of the lucky ones on the night of a fiery crash on Interstate 81 near Kernstown.
She walked away unharmed when a tractor-trailer slammed into the back of a 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee that had been stopped by a traffic delay caused by road construction. The Jeep burst into flames, and two people inside died.
Embrey was riding in another vehicle in front of the Jeep and survived the initial impact. Moments later, she watched as her father, Harry Hamilton Jr., pull one of three occupants in the Jeep to safety.
Embrey said in an interview she remembers the crash on Oct. 5 with a mixture of shock and horror, but there is something else: a nagging feeling that she could have done more than stand by in the darkness and watch her father's life-saving heroics.
Now she said she hopes she has found something that can still make a difference more than three months after the tragedy. She launched a petition on the Change.org Web site a few days ago demanding that the federal government get Jeep Grand Cherokees made from 1993 to 2004 off the road.
"I just feel that I didn't save anybody that night, and I really need to do this and save the next family that may be destined to die in a Jeep fire," Embrey said.
The driver of the truck, Lance Anderson of Hudon, S.D., was charged with reckless driving and later with operating a vehicle with faulty brakes. Embrey also blames the Virginia Department of Transportation for inadequate signage warning drivers they were nearing a construction zone.
But she reserves a special anger for Chrysler, the manufacturer of the Jeep, for placing a plastic gas tank behind the Jeep's rear bumper. She contends the tank makes older model Jeeps like the one she saw burst into flames especially vulnerable to catastrophic fires.
The victims in the I-81 accident didn't have to die, Embrey said.
"A lot of reasons led up to the accident, but they died because of the design of the Jeep, Embrey said.
She learned after the accident that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began an investigation in 2010 into Jeep Grand Cherokees and their gas tanks.
Three years later, the agency is still investigating.
Embrey learned in her research that the nonprofit Center for Automotive Safety pressured the NHTSA to launch the investigation after the center's research showed the Grand Cherokee gas tanks can blow up at impacts as low as 40 mph, but the Ford Explorer, a similar vehicle, can withstand collisions of 70 mph.
Embrey is not the only resident of the Northern Shenandoah Valley taking action against the design of the Grand Cherokee.
Family members of victims who died in an earlier crash involving a Grand Cherokee, also in Frederick County, have filed lawsuits totaling $50 million against Chrysler Group LLC. The suits in Frederick County Circuit Court blame the placement of the fuel tank for a fire that followed a rear end collision. A total of four people died in the crash.
The driver of the other vehicle, Steven Allen Boyce of Shawneeland, is also being sued for negligence in the case. Boyce has been convicted of drunk driving and other charges linked to the accident.
Embrey said she hopes to collect 100,000 signatures on her petition. She had attracted 113 as of Thursday, but she remains optimistic, despite the slow start.
"If we can get to my goal of 100,000 signatures, I'm pretty confident we can get these things off the road," she said.
Anyone wishing to sign the petition may do so at Change.org/dangerousjeeps.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or email@example.com