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.