Astro Vans Ablaze?

Three children died when this Chevy Astro van burst into flames.
Vicky Howard treasures the time she has with her children, especially after she almost lost them last spring.

"God got us outta there," she says.

As CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts reports, Howard and her family were on their way to Bible study when she says their Chevrolet Astro van suddenly lost power.

"Not even five minutes, the car just caught on fire and just started. It just blew up. It was gone," says Howard.

Laura Peterson tells a similar story. "I'm just thankful that my mother was in there and she got my baby out because I don't know that I could have gotten her out."

Beside a busy road near Minneapolis lie memorials to children who weren't as lucky.

The children, aged 4, 3 and 19 months, died last June when an Astro Van driven by their day care provider caught fire.

Stunned by the tragedy, the local police department mounted a 6-month investigation. While the final report ruled it an accident and drew no conclusions about any potential design problem, it was clear about what caused the van to burn.

"This fire erupted in seconds. Well, the only fuel that would make a fire spread that rapidly was gasoline," Det. Mike Lapham of the Blaine, Minn. Police Department tells Pitts.

Fire safety consultant Lanny Berke inspected a similar Astro van at the request of CBS station WCCO in Minneapolis.

Berke believes pressurized fuel lines are too close to the exhaust system - metal parts that can get very hot when the engine is running.

"If you develop a leak, a gasoline leak, in such close proximity to your muffler and it sprays onto your muffler, that can be your ignition source. That's pretty dangerous," explains Berke.

It's hard to say exactly how many of these vans have burned since they were introduced in 1985, because fires that don't involve crashes aren't automatically reported to carmakers or regulators. But the figures that are available, based on insurance claims, show the vans actually have a lower than average incidence of fires.

General Motors, which declined an interview request, insists the Astros and a similar van called the GMC Safari are safe if properly maintained. GM also says the design of the vans' fuel system doesn't increase the risk of fire. But the carmaker does intend to conduct it's own examination of the van involved in the deaths of the Minnesota children.

So do attorneys representing the victims' families.

"I think anyone who experienced this loss -- losing their children -- would want to know what happened, what caused this," says Bill Manning, one such attorney.

It's an answer that could be a long time coming for families longing to put this matter to rest.