USA TODAY, March 12, 2014
By Yamiche Alcindor
General Motors’ massive recall of faulty cars came eight years after Doug Weigel tucked a white hockey jersey inside his 18-year-old daughter’s casket and cried himself into accepting her death as just part of life, unavoidable.
For Weigel, the consequences of the automaker’s announcement that some of its malfunctioning cars have killed people are carved in stone on the teenager’s grave: “An unfinished life, God needed a goalie.”
Natasha Weigel and her friend, Amy Rademaker, 15, were riding in a 2005 Chevy Cobalt —- a now-recalled model — when the car suddenly lost power and slammed into trees on a rural Wisconsin road on Oct. 24, 2006.
Amy died four hours and 33 minutes after the crash, while Natasha Weigel lingered for 11 days in a coma. Doug Weigel deployed to Kosovo with the Army months later and, while clutching a quilt made of his daughter’s hoodies, tearfully accepted her fate.
GM’s recall last month of 1.62 million vehicles worldwide tore open old wounds for him and others.The company says faulty ignition switches that caused the engine to inadvertently turn off and disabled the airbags had claimed the lives of 13 people and caused 31 crashes. Further, the automaker had known about the problem since 2004 but didn’t issue a recall until a decade later. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R. Mich., says the committee will hold a hearing soon on the issue.
Families across the country must now rethink years of guilt, regret and blame as answers to questions posed long ago emerge at last.
“I’d go to work everyday, smile and then I’d get in my car to go home and start bawling,” says Weigel, who at the time of his daughter’s death was in the Army and months away from deployment. “I have been at terms with it for a long time. I’ve been OK, but now this comes.”
Coming to terms with his loss for Weigel meant pushing past his sadness and not dwelling on the details of that night.
However, a crash-investigation team commissioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) wanted specifics. At 7:55 p.m., the car had veered off the road at 71 mph, vaulted a driveway and flew 59 feet before clipping a utility box on the ground and slamming into a grove of trees at about 55 mph.
Investigators reported in 2007 that, according to the car’s data recorder, the ignition switch was in the “accessory” position instead of “run,” and the front airbags didn’t deploy. It also noted that there were several complaints in NHTSA’s database about ignition switch problems.
In 2004, a GM engineer had the same problem testing the soon-to-be-launched 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, and engineers proposed several solutions. None was adopted, and the car went on sale with the faulty switch.
Federal safety officials last week ordered GM to provide detailed information on why it took so long to recall 1.37 million cars in the U.S. The order lists 107 specific questions that NHTSA wants answered under oath by April 3, starting with why the automaker didn’t fix the switches when it first noticed the problem.
GM CEO May Barra, in an unusual move, is personally overseeing the recall. She wrote in a letter to employees last week that the company is conducting an “internal review to give us an unvarnished report on what happened.” GM announced Mondaythat it had hired former U.S. attorney Tony Valukas, who investigated the 2009 collapse of Lehman Bros. for the government, to lead the probe.
Alan Adler, a GM spokesman, told USA TODAY that the company didn’t have a “robust enough investigation” into the faulty ignitions in the years before the recall. He added that the company isn’t sure how or if it will compensate crash victims and their families.
GM is not liable for claims arising from incidents or accidents occurring prior to July 2009, when the company emerged from bankruptcy, Adler says. However, GM is responsible for safety recalls and resulting repairs regardless of when the product was made
“We are very sorry,” Adler says. “We are doing everything we can to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”
The vehicles being recalled in the U.S. are Chevrolet Cobalts from the 2005-07 model years; 2003-07 Saturn Ions; 2006-07 Chevrolet HHRs and Pontiac Solstices; and 2007 Saturn Sky and Pontiac G5 models.
None of the families USA TODAY spoke with said they contacted GM directly about the accidents.
“ANGER IS NOT GOING TO DO ME ANY GOOD”
GM’s chronology of events angers many, but not Doug Weigel.
“We are talking about a major car company and 13 families with lost loved ones,” he says. “After almost eight years, anger is not going to do me any good. Nothing is going to bring them back.”
And nothing will change Weigel’s memories of watching his daughter wither away.
The night of the grisly crash, a police officer told Weigel, of Albert Lea, Minn., that his daughter had been in an accident two hours away in Wisconsin. The father rushed to Regions Hospital in St. Paul,Minn., joining his ex-wife and Natasha’s mother, Jayne Rimer, and her husband, Ken Rimer.
All three sat by the teen’s hospital bed for two weeks while she lay unconscious and on life support.
“We just watched her slowly deteriorate,” Doug Weigel said.
Rademaker had 38 separate injuries, including skull and rib fractures, a bleeding brain and a swollen face, according to her family and the 2007 report by crash investigators.
The Cobalt’s third occupant and driver, Megan Phillips, then 17, survived with serious injuries, including a fractured right arm and lacerated liver and spleen. The three friends, who were not wearing seat belts, had been returning from a trip to Walmart.
Phillips, the Rimers and Doug Weigel have hired Corpus Christi, Texas, attorney Bob Hilliard to sue GM.
“Had General Motors been upfront from day one, at least the parents would have had some peace in their loss instead of feeling an unnecessary level of guilt and blame,” Hilliard says. “This is a decision that should cause General Motors to burn in hell.”
He also filed a lawsuit against Toyota after the company’s unintended acceleration recall involving floor mats that could trap gas pedals.
Ken Rimer, 58, of Hammond, Wis., and his wife hired a different lawyer the night of the accident in 2006. They collected police reports, information from the emergency crews on the scene and anything else they could lay their hands on, he says.
But it wasn’t clear then whether GM was at fault and waging a legal battle seemed too expensive. “We’ve been living with not knowing since then,” he says.
Weigel focused on moving on. though he can still easily picture cheering for his daughter as she played hockey, and laughing with her as the two bicycled around town.
“When she was young, she was my shadow pretty much,” says Weigel, 48, who now works as a mechanic for the National Guard and as a tow truck driver.
Natasha would accompany him to Army bases and ride in the passenger seat in his tow truck. In the months before her death, she was spending time in Wisconsin, where her mother lived.
After the crash, Weigel buried his daughter with one of her old number 30 hockey goalie jerseys.
He deployed to Kosovo nine months later. There, he did his best to bottle up his emotions, though at times he found himself crying while clutching another of Natasha’s blue jersey.
Eventually, Weigel bounced back, and so did his three sons who lost “Tasha,” their big sister. The dad got tattoos in her memory, one of “TW30” on his left shoulder and angel wings on his left forearm. He also kept her plaid leather wallet and its contents — her license, a library card, and $6 — in his glove compartment.
“FEELINGS THAT WE THOUGHT WE’D NEVER HAVE TO FEEL AGAIN”
Amy Rademaker’ss mother, Margie Beskau, also kept tangible memories of her daughter: A life-size photo of Amy printed in case her crushing injuries prevented an open casket. An unworn white prom dress. A red teddy bear.
Amy’s wake was on her 16th birthday. She lay in a casket sprayed orange — her favorite color — surrounded by balloons.
Her four surviving siblings kept reminiscing about a fiery teenager who talked fast and did cartwheels around the house. But Beskau, 51, of Woodville, Wis., became so consumed with depression and anxiety that she could no longer work as a gas station cashier.
For years, the mother blamed herself for Amy’s demise.
“I’ve felt a lot of guilt because I was the one who told her she could go,” says Beskau, her voice cracking with emotion. “People I knew would say I shouldn’t have let her go and, at the time, I would just agree with them because I was so grief-stricken.”
Early on, she thought the car might have had an issue. But, she says her attorney told her police and investigators determined the car didn’t cause the crash. GM was a Goliath, and the company she, her father and all of her children bought cars from, Beskau says.
Still, questions about the Cobalt stayed with her for years. Ultimately they began to consume her.
“It was one of the things I had to let go,” she says. “Now, all these years later, we get GM admitting they knew there was a problem with that car and had known for years before Amy ever got into a Cobalt? And they still kept making those cars? It’s like, do they have a conscience?”
The ordeal has pushed her back in time.
“It brings it all back — feelings that we thought we’d never have to feel again,” Beskau says. “I’ve seen pictures that I never saw — that I didn’t want to see.”
“SHE WOULD BE ALIVE TODAY”
Her sentiments are echoed by Laura Christian, whose daughter Amber Marie Rose, 16, crashed into a tree in Dentsville, Md., while driving her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt on July 29, 2005.
Christian had given Amber up for adoption, but the two were reunited a year before the teen’s death by Amber’s adopted mother, Terry DiBattista.
“For that year, all the world was perfect,” Christian recalls. “I do think about what could have been and what should have been. ”
Amber was coming back from a party after a night of drinking, and she had gotten into an argument with someone. She was speeding when her car hit an embankment and crashed into a tree. She was crushed by the car’s console.
DiBattista, of Conway, S.C., hired an investigator, who discovered that the ignition was in the “accessory” position instead of the “run” position and that the airbags never deployed. The family sued GM, and the company settled for an undisclosed amount. DiBattista and Jim Rose, Amber’s father, signed a confidentiality agreement.
Christian called NHTSA three or four times to point out what she thought was a pattern of problems with several GM cars. Over time, with no one calling her back, she stopped researching the issue, assuming GM would handle it.
The mother kept thinking about her plan to give Amber her 2002 Hyundai Sonata once she had enough money to buy herself a new car.
“My deepest regret is I couldn’t afford to get another car,” Christian says. “She would be alive today.”
Meanwhile, articles and comments blaming Amber for drinking and driving, and for her own death, kept the pain fresh. Since the recall, Christian has jumped back into researching GM and wants to find other families who lost loved ones.
Before last month’s recall, GM had maintained that the cars involved were safe because they could be steered and stopped. The automaker also noted that in some of the crashes now linked to the problem, safety belts weren’t being used, and alcohol and speeding were factors.
Amber was unbelted, impaired by alcohol, accelerating with a wide-open throttle to 69 mph in a 25-mph residential area, and was on the wrong side of the street when her car crashed, a NHTSA-commissioned investigations team found.
“Basically, it was our fault,” Christian says of the way the case was framed. “Now the truth is out. Now they know. And, now, we all know.”
Contributing: Lauren McLendon, James R. Healey, Fred Meier and Paul Overberg