08/28/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
It had been an evening of family joy, of celebration, and tomorrow there would be a wedding. At about 9 p.m. last Oct. 1, Egyptian-born pharmacist Medhat Labib loaded his family into his '96 Ford Explorer and began the one-hour drive from Orlando, where they had just attended his nephew's wedding rehearsal, to their home near Melbourne, Fla. Next to Medhat in the front seat was his wife, Maggie, 42. Asleep in the back were their sons Ramy, then 13, and Andrew, 9, as well as Medhat's cousin, his wife and small daughter, who were visiting from Canada. As the Explorer tooled down 1-95, Medhat and Maggie chatted quietly. "She never slept in the car," says Medhat. "Even if it was 1 a.m., she'd be awake, talking to me."
Then, without warning, the family's world was shattered forever. Labib, now 48, was driving at the 70 mph speed limit when the tread shredded off the Explorer's left rear tire and slammed into the fender. The vehicle jolted, causing Labib to lose control at the wheel. According to the report of a Florida Highway Patrol trooper who soon arrived at the scene, the crowded Explorer then rolled over four or five times before coming to rest 55 feet from the highway. Of the seven passengers, four were ejected from the SUV. (It remains a matter of dispute how many were wearing seat belts.) Two died instantly: Andrew Labib, who was found near the vehicle, and Maggie, who was cut in two when the Explorer rolled over on her.
Medhat Labib, who has brought a multimillion-dollar suit against the Ford Motor Co. and tire manufacturer Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., hovered in a coma for four days at the Melbourne hospital. He recovered consciousness only to be told that, in addition to losing his wife and son, he was now a paraplegic and would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. "We always did everything together," he says of having to rebuild his life without Maggie and Andrew. "That's what's killing me."
Compounding the tragedy is the possibility that the crash could have been avoided. On Aug. 9 Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone announced a massive recall of 14.4 million Firestone-brand tires, including the ones on Labib's SUV. While the manufacturer insists the tires in question—Firestone models ATX, Radial ATX TT and Wilderness AT—are safe. when properly maintained and inflated, the recall was widely seen as a response to a federal investigation launched in May into more than 750 complaints—and 62 deaths—reportedly related to faulty Firestone tires on Ford Explorers and other vehicles. Adding to the pressure for a recall: a growing number of lawsuits against Firestone—more than 100 at last count—and burgeoning news coverage of those suits.
Still, Firestone spokeswoman Cynthia McCafferty describes the recall as a "precaution" while the company works to determine what, if any, problem exists with its tires. "We are confident in our tires," she says. At the same time, Ford, which uses Firestone tires as standard equipment on many of its models, is distancing itself from the tire manufacturer. "Firestone does build good tires," Ford truck spokesman Jon Harmon told PEOPLE. "Unfortunately the ATX wasn't one of them." (Neither company would comment on this case.)
For Medhat Labib, both the recall and that admission have come too late. "I thought it was something I had done at first. I had a feeling, 'What have I done?' " Labib, who has no memory of the accident, recalls thinking when he was told of the tragedy. It wasn't until he spoke with lawyers, including Bruce Kaster of Ocala, Fla., who specialized in tire cases, that Labib began to suspect a faulty tire was to blame. Says Kaster, who is representing five other clients who are suing Firestone: "The problem should have been eliminated a long time ago."
Born in Cairo, Labib studied to be a pharmacist before immigrating to the U.S. in 1980, following his older sister Mervat Elias to Florida. He met his future wife, Maggie Shalaby, at his parents' Coptic Christian church during a trip back to Cairo in 1983. The two conducted a long-distance courtship—"She wrote lovely letters," he recalls—before marrying in Egypt a year later. Based on what she'd seen in the movies, Maggie was determined to move to California. "I said, 'Okay, let's go and visit and see if you like it,' " says Labib. "We did, and she hated the traffic, so we decided on Florida." Medhat landed a job as the pharmacy manager of a Walgreens drugstore outside Melbourne, in an area with a small Egyptian community, while Maggie, a former secretary, learned English.
As parents, the Labibs were deeply involved in their sons' lives. Says Mervat, 53: "They would do everything as a family. They never left the kids with a babysitter. They never did anything by themselves. Always with their children. Always." Medhat took the family on monthlong visits to Egypt and, in 1996, shortly after buying the brand-new Ford Explorer, he moved the family into "the house of our dreams," a new 3,500-sq.-ft., two-story home with a swimming pool in Satellite Beach. Maggie filled the house with furniture in pale shades of yellow and pink. "We planned it from scratch," says Labib.
The trip that took the family to Orlando last October involved a gathering to celebrate the marriage of Mervat's son Sammer, 24. Although the wedding went ahead as planned—relatives had come from Egypt and Canada—an inescapable pall was cast by the deaths of Maggie and Andrew Labib. As Medhat lay in the hospital, Ramy, whose hip was broken in the accident, was taken to an Oct. 6 memorial service at the Catholic school both he and Andrew attended. But Ramy was too upset to attend the funeral itself later that afternoon. Medhat, meanwhile, was unable to speak when he at last regained consciousness and scratched the names of his wife and sons on a piece of paper. With his priest holding one hand and a family friend holding the other, Medhat was given the news that his wife and Andrew were dead.
Now back at Walgreens, Labib is learning how to do his job from his motorized wheelchair. It has been a slow process—it takes him three hours just to get ready for work every morning—and he and Ramy have moved from the family dream house to a one-story home with extra-wide hallways and doors to accommodate Labib's wheelchair. Ramy helps his father with daily chores, cooking and cleaning up. "He is very good to me," says Labib. "I think we have grown closer because of this."
Happily, Ramy's broken hip has fully healed. His psyche is another matter. "Emotionally, he's terrible," says Labib. "The moment he stops to think about his mother and brother, he cries." While he will talk to his father about the accident, he has refused his father's request that he see a therapist. "He doesn't want to be reminded of his mother—it's too hard," says Labib.
Although the recent recall of Firestone tires may have no bearing on Labib's suit against the manufacturer, which is not yet scheduled for trial, Labib says it is a small consolation. "I just wish it had been done a long time ago," he says. "It would have saved a lot of people's lives—my family's lives."
Lori Rozsa, Jeff Truesdell and Jeanne DeQuine in Florida