WASHINGTON - The CEO of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. apologized Wednesday before angry members of Congress for dozens of fatal accidents that may be linked to his company's tires. The chief executive of Ford Motor Co. insisted his company could not be blamed but promised to notify Americans from now on when problems occur overseas.
At the same time, internal Bridgestone/Firestone documents obtained by The Associated Press showed the company had data indicating safety problems years before the Aug. 9 recall of 6.5 million tires. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., said he believed the data was available as early as 1992.
''Where was your sense of concern, as a human being and a corporation, to yell: 'Look out, America! Danger is coming!''' demanded Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
At separate House and Senate hearings, which began in the morning and continued late into the night, lawmakers admonished the tire maker and Ford, which uses Firestone tires on its popular Explorer and other models, for not notifying the public there was a problem even though complaints about the tires had been made for years around the world.
Ford began a tire recall in 16 foreign countries more than a year before the U.S. recall, but was not required by law to notify federal officials and did not do so.
Ford President and CEO Jacques Nasser immediately pledged to the House panel to voluntarily tell American consumers of any safety problems that happens with his company's products in overseas markets from now on.
''We will advise U.S. safety authorities of safety actions that are taken in overseas markets and vice versa,'' Nasser said. ''From now on, when we know it, so will the world.''
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received more than 1,400 U.S. complaints, including reports of 88 deaths and at least 250 injuries that may be linked to the Firestone tires.
''I come before you to apologize to you, the American people, and especially to the families who have lost loved ones in these terrible rollover accidents,'' said Bridgestone/Firestone CEO Masatoshi Ono, who rarely makes public appearances but accepted a request to testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee's transportation panel.
''I also come to accept full and personal responsibility on behalf of Bridgestone/Firestone for the events that led to this hearing,'' said Ono, speaking in halting English.
Ono, who had Japanese interpreters beside him to translate, said the cause of the tire problems has not been determined. ''However, you have my word that we will continue until we find the cause,'' he said.
NHTSA in May began investigating accidents in which Firestone tires suddenly lost their tread or suffered blowouts. Many cases involved Ford Explorers rolling over.
Nasser said his company's vehicles are safe. ''This is a tire issue, not a vehicle issue,'' he said, repeating the company's mantra.
''We have millions of Goodyear tires on 1995 through 1997 Explorers - the same specification tire operating under the same conditions - and they haven't experienced these problems,'' he said.
But NHTSA Administrator Sue Bailey said many of the accidents were caused by a combination of flawed Firestone tires and characteristics of the Ford Explorer, which like other sport utility vehicles has a higher center of gravity and is more apt than a car to roll over.
It ''clearly is a combination of situations that produced the outcome,'' she said.
Bridgestone/Firestone is recalling 6.5 million tires: the P235/75R15-size ATX and ATX II models, as well as similarly sized Wilderness AT tires. Most of the tires were made at its plant in Decatur, Ill.
Last week, NHTSA issued a warning about the safety of 1.4 million additional tires. Bridgestone/Firestone continues to insist there is no reason to expand the recall to include those tires. Also last week, Venezuela's consumer protection agency recommended that Ford and Firestone be held criminally responsible for 46 deaths in that country.
The internal Bridgestone/Firestone documents marked ''confidential'' showed more than half the property damage and injury claims the company received from 1997 to 1999 were for the kind of ATX II tires now under recall.
According to the documents, most of the customer reports of tread separation involved tires from the company's Decatur plant. More than a third involved the P235/75R15 size tires now under recall.
Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone have long said no statistics were compiled showing problems with the tires until Ford, in late July and early August, analyzed Bridgestone/Firestone's claims of property damage or injuries.
''Ford did not know that there was a defect with the recalled tires until we virtually pried the data from Firestone's hands and analyzed it ourselves,'' Nasser insisted. ''It was only then, a few days before the recall was announced, that Ford engineers discovered conclusive evidence that the tires were defective.''
But Tauzin, who presided over the House hearing, said such information apparently was available to Firestone as far back as 1992.
Bridgestone/Firestone Vice President Gary Crigger acknowledged that the company used the information to determine how the problem affected profits, not to determine tire safety. He said the data was not examined to determine tire safety until the end of July.
''We had looked at it, but we never looked at it in conjunction with performance of tires,'' he told the House panel.
Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said the data were part of an internal memo dated Jan. 19, 2000.
''The document confirms our suspicions that Firestone knew it had a problem with the tires for several years before taking action,'' Johnson said. ''You would have to have incredibly inept management not to share this information with your safety division.''
Ralph Nader, consumer advocate and Green Party presidential candidate, said Ford and Firestone officials should be criminally prosecuted.
''It's a classic two-company cover-up in the most tragic ways for the families and individuals who lost their lives in these otherwise preventable collisions,'' he said in a Capitol hallway.
Helen Petrauskas, Ford's vice president of environmental and safety engineering, told the Senate hearing that Firestone had insisted the overseas tire problems identified by Ford were caused by road and repair problems, and unfavorable driving conditions. Ford's own company testing found no defect trends in U.S. versions of the tires.
''The first we heard about (the defect trends) was when NHTSA opened their investigation and required Firestone to assemble and provide data on property damage, personal injury and lawsuits,'' she said.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Associated Press Writer Jesse J. Holland contributed to this story.
On the Net:
Ford Motor Co.: http://www.ford.com
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.gov