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Billboards depicting fiery crash ask for Jeep Cherokee recall

By Joe Beck

Jenelle Embrey shows no sign of letting up on her efforts to get the federal government to recall some Jeep Cherokees, and she is paying for a trio of billboards to prove it.

The billboards greet motorists on their way to Winchester's Apple Blossom Festival with a graphic image of a Jeep Cherokee exploding into flames from its rear with skeletons seated inside. The message accompanying the image reads: "Help Save Innocent Families Change.org/DangerousJeeps.

A fatal crash on Interstate 81 near Kearnstown on Oct. 5 led Embrey to seek a recall of Jeep Cherokees for model years 1993 to 2004. Heather Lee Santor, 39, and Acoye Breckenridge, 18, both of Staunton, lost their lives in the crash. A tractor-trailer rear-ended Santor's 1998 Jeep Cherokee from behind while it was stopped for construction traffic. The Jeep exploded from the rear, and flames quickly engulfed it.

Embrey, 46, of Linden, and her father, Harry Hamilton Jr. of Kernstown, were stopped in a Chrysler PT Cruiser just ahead of the Cherokee at the moment of impact. The crash pushed the Jeep into the rear of the PT Cruiser. Embrey looked on in horror as her father pulled one of the passengers in the Jeep to safety but was unable to rescue Santor and Breckenridge in time.

A shaken Embrey learned shortly after the crash that Jeep Cherokees have come under criticism from nonprofit safety organizations for the placement of their gas tanks in what engineers sometimes describe as a crush zone. The impact of a rear end collision can rupture a tank and cause gasoline to leak out and ignite, according to critics led by the Center for Auto Safety.

Embrey, 46, of Linden, also discovered that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an investigation into 1993-2004 Jeep Cherokees in 2010 and upgraded the effort last year.

Embrey decided to prod the federal agency in January with an online petition demanding a recall. She had collected 715 signatures as of Friday morning, well short of her goal of 100,000.

The billboards are intended to grab attention and revive a cause that has been flagging on the Internet. Embrey said the hundreds of thousands attracted to the Apple Blossom Festival made last week an especially good time to unveil the billboards.

She considered advertising in other electronic media but an online site she visited recommended billboards.

"It said billboards are something people haven't figured out how to turn off with their technology, and it's still as effective as it was 10 years ago," Embrey said.

Embrey said she dug into her own pockets to pay for the billboards. She said agreements with the billboard company and graphic designer prevented her from disclosing the amount of money it is costing her, but she said the figure is in the thousands. She estimated that the billboards will continue to cost in the thousands for each month they remain up.

Embrey, who works as a medical transcriptionist with a health services company in Reston, admitted the project is "a whole lot of money" for her.

"It hurts, but I have to do it,'' she added.

Chrysler has defended the Cherokee's safety record and shows no signs of voluntarily recalling the models under investigation by federal regulators. Mike Palese, a company spokesman, said Friday few, if any vehicles are designed to withstand the kind of collision Embrey witnessed.

He described the crash as "a high energy, very violent collision'' at a speed well above federal safety standards, all of which the Cherokee meets or exceeds.

"The rear impact test of that vehicle is 30 to 35 mph, Palese said of the Cherokee. "You're talking about a fully loaded truck hitting it at 50 mph. That is a potentially tragic situation.

"We think the vehicle in question performs at the same level or better than peer vehicles and is no more susceptible to fire in the rear end."

Embrey said she had trouble finding businesses willing to take on her billboard project. A graphic designer turned her down and so did a billboard company because they considered the images she had in mind too controversial.

Travelers can see one billboard on U.S. 522 about four miles south of Winchester off of I-81 facing northbound traffic. Two other billboards are located in West Virginia, one at mile marker six on I-81 and the other on W.Va., 51 about a quarter mile east where it intersects with I-81. The West Virginia billboards are illuminated at night. The one on U.S. 522 is not.

Embrey's online petition can be viewed at change.org/dangerousjeeps

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

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