WASHINGTON, D.C. – Families from Minnesota and Wisconsin appeared at a House sub-committee hearing Tuesday on the General Motors recall of 2.5 million Chevy Cobalt cars.
Natasha Weigel, 18, of Wisconsin, and Amy Rademaker, 15, of Minnesota, died in a car crash linked to the cars in the recall. The crash occurred in Roberts, Wis. on Oct. 24, 2006.
The girls were riding in a 2005 Cobalt when the car suddenly turned off, causing the steering to stop and the power brakes and the airbags to fail. Both girls lived for a time after the crash but died in hospitals.
Outside the Capitol before the hearing, Ken Rimer, stepfather of Natasha Weigel, told reporters the story of what happened to Natasha and Amy. Accident investigators found the ignition switch had slipped. It was a problem with the ignition switches on the Cobalt going back to 2001, but GM did not recall the vehicles until earlier this year.
"What was to be a simple shopping excursion," said Rimer, "turned into a death trap as their vehicle, without any warning, lost power. The car followed a path off the road, went airborne over an adjoining driveway and tragically collided with a tree."
"My wife, Jayne, lost everything. Natasha was her only child. There will be no boyfriend troubles, no wedding day jitters, no children for Natasha nor grandchildren for Jayne, no family member to care for her as she grows older. Just a forever hole in her heart for the daughter she so loved."
Rimer and Rademaker family members attended the hearing to hear General Motors CEO Mary Barra face congressmen and women from across the country. There was puzzlement expressed by committee members as to why it took 10 years from the time GM engineers knew there was a problem with the ignition switches until the Cobalt recall in the last two months.
"Sitting here today," said Barra, "I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced in that program, but I can tell you that we will find out."
Barra was grilled by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-New York) about the investigation of the problem at GM being done by someone GM had hired.
"I do not know if he will give a report or if he will share findings," said Barra.
"If he does, will you share the full report?" asked Tonko.
"We will share the appropriate information," replied Barra.
"Not the full report?" asked the incredulous Tonko.
"Again, I do not know if there will be a full report, but we will share…"
Tonko interrupted, "If there is a full report, will you share it?"
Barra did not give in. "I commit that we will be very transparent and we will share what is appropriate."
Barra did tell the committee that "Today's GM" would "do the right thing" for victims and their families, but she did not say that "Today's GM" would accept financial liability for the deaths of at least 13 people from the faulty switches.
A report in the Detroit Free Press indicated that Barra met with victim's families in Washington on Monday evening. According to the newspaper, Barra shed tears at the stories of lost family members.
Barra admitted in the hearing that GM sometimes accepts parts and materials that do meet GM specifics, so long as the parts or material met safety and performance standards. She said it was possible that some of the defective switches were used as replacement parts.
The hearing also heard testimony from the acting director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Association. Congress wanted to know why the NHTSA never picked up the problem that led to the GM recall.