RICHMOND, JULY 17 -- Ford Motor Co., bowing to pressure from Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, federal authorities, consumer advocates and several states, announced today the nationwide recall of 16,000 ambulances to correct mechanical defects that have resulted in some fires and injuries.

While denying any fault for the fires and other problems associated with Ford vans that have been converted into ambulances, the company said it would also correct "operator maintenance errors" as part of a $30 million, eight-week repair program.

The recall, which Ford agreed to on Wednesday in a meeting with officials of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, capped a year of mounting concern about the reliability of the company's E-350 van, the workhorse of the U.S. ambulance industry.

Fire departments and rescue squads around the country reported that the vans, converted to ambulances by companies other than Ford, would spurt fuel, sometimes bursting into flame. The problem stemmed from overheating and intense pressurization of gasoline in the fuel tanks of the vehicles and caused at least 24 reported fires and five injuries.

Some ambulance operators, whose faulty E-350 vehicles have been returned to the shop but not repaired completely, remained skeptical about the recall, they said today. They said a recent, limited-repair program launched by Ford has not worked and pointed to the case of a Charles County, Md., ambulance that was modified, only to be destroyed by fire last month at a hospital in Clinton, Md.

"You take 'em in to correct a problem and you get more problems," said Ronald F. Ducheney, president of the Choice American Ambulance Service, a 13-vehicle fleet in Falls Church serving Northern Virginia and parts of Maryland.

Ducheney said that as recently as two days ago, one of the five E-350 ambulances he had Ford modify stalled on Maryland Rte. 202 while carrying a critical-care patient and a physician. The driver was able to restart the vehicle and arrived safely at Washington Hospital Center, Ducheney said.

"It's killing us reputation-wise," said Ducheney, who said that three of his ambulances are plagued by engine stalling, knocking and other irregularities.

Terry, a possible candidate for governor of Virginia in 1989, seized on the issue a year ago when she wrote to Ford's chairman and urged an immediate recall of the E-350 vans.

Since then, she has maintained a steady drumbeat of protest against Ford, and Thursday -- after learning that the company planned a news conference in Washington for this morning -- her office scrambled to complete a recall petition and file it with the federal traffic safety agency on behalf of Virginia and six other states.

"These vehicles are unsafe, and the Ford "We've been subjected to risk for a far longer time than we had to be."

-- Mary Sue Terry

Motor Co. knows it," Terry said. "It is a miracle that no one has been seriously injured or killed."

In an interview here today, Terry said she was gratified by the recall but "disappointed that it took so long."

"We've been subjected to risk for a far longer time than we had to be," Terry said.

In announcing the recall, Helen O. Petrauskas, Ford's vice president for environmental and safety engineering, blamed the Charles County ambulance fire on a cracked valve seal grommet, a component that has since been "redesigned, manufactured from a different material and rigorously tested."

Ford, Petrauskas added, has instructed its dealers "that no ambulance should leave the service bay until all conditions we have identified as clearly unacceptable are repaired."

Ron DeFore, the federal traffic safety agency's public and consumer affairs director, said the recall was prompted in part by the pressure the agency began putting on Ford several months ago. DeFore said a voluntary recall was preferable to one ordered by a court, because legal or administrative proceedings could have delayed the action for months.

"What they {Ford} have proposed to do this time should solve the problem," DeFore said.

Terry, who had threatened to sue Ford after two ambulances in Virginia caught fire and burned last year, said she is prepared to go to court to ensure that the recall works.

"We have eight more weeks of risk, and we have not closed the file on this case," she said.