Robert Bugajski's parents had heard that the General Motors C/K pickup trucks were rolling firebombs. When Bugajski went shopping for a used pickup, they declared those trucks off-limits.
But getting a different model didn't save his life.
Bugajski, 17, of Carson City, Nev., was out for a drive in May 1997 when a C/K ran a stop sign directly in his path. He wasn't going very fast--only 30 to 35 mph. But he broadsided the '78 pickup, striking it where its nearly five-foot-long gas tank formed a big target on the outside of the truck's protective frame.
Gasoline spewed from the ruptured tank and flames engulfed both trucks. Bugajski, burned over 60% of his body, was pulled from the cab moaning in agony. He lingered eight days before he died. The people in the C/K truck, Thomas and Jeanette Douglas, both 67, were incinerated on the spot.
"My son was everything to me," Teresa Bugajski said. As for GM, she said, "I feel he's a number to them."
The three victims and dozens more might still be alive but for a fateful decision by the government to leave the trucks on the road despite evidence of the danger. In December 1994, federal safety regulators--in exchange for a GM payment of $51 million for safety programs--dropped an investigation that could have led to a recall.
But the deal did nothing about the millions of trucks still on the road. Since the settlement, at least 65 people are believed to have burned to death in crashes of the old full-size pickups, according to a Times analysis of data from the Fatal Accident Reporting System, a U.S. government database.
Since the trucks were introduced in the 1970s, at least 725 people have burned to death in fuel fires triggered by C/K crashes, according to FARS data. The body count distinguishes the pickups, from a fire risk standpoint, as the most dangerous vehicles ever put on the road, according to safety groups, crash victims and their lawyers.
That does not count an even greater number of injury victims, including hundreds disfigured by their burns.
GM officials have defended the trucks, saying they have a fine overall safety record. They contend that the trucks' fuel system was not defectively designed, and meets applicable safety standards.
The burn deaths, both before and after the GM settlement, are an approximation, based on fatal crashes in which the federal database listed fire or explosion as the "most harmful event."
Because autopsy reports rarely enter into the system's codings, people who burn to death may sometimes be counted as dying from the violence of the crash, or vice versa. But federal officials say the "fire/explosion" code provides a fairly accurate count of people who perished by fire.
The Washington-based consumer group Center for Auto Safety has estimated the total of burn fatalities at more than 800.
The burn toll for C/K trucks continues to rise, though more slowly than in the past, as more of the trucks reach the junkyard. Even so, more than 2.5 million are still on the road.
Each fiery collision is a reminder of how decisions by big companies and government agencies affect the well-being of ordinary people, sometimes in life-and-death ways, according to critics. The C/K saga also spotlights how government regulators have retreated to the sidelines, leaving product liability lawsuits as the main constraint on unsafe vehicle designs, they say.
GM mounted fuel tanks outside the protective frame in more than 9 million full-sized pickups produced from 1973 to 1987. The outboard fuel tank design continued to be used in a small number of specialty trucks through the 1991 model year.
Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, said the danger involved not only the tanks' vulnerable location and large size, but also the use of dual side-saddle tanks in millions of the trucks--doubling the risk of disaster.
He compared the tank design to "taking a human heart and putting it outside the chest. The heart is protected by the ribs," Ditlow said, "and the fuel tank should be protected by the frame."
Although GM says there was nothing wrong with the outside-the-frame design, a senior GM engineer, when asked in a deposition to name a worse place to put a fuel tank, gave this blunt reply: "Well, yes. You could . . . put it on the front bumper."
To be sure, any vehicle can leak gasoline and catch fire if a crash is violent enough. But in 1993, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, found that the risk of burning to death in side-impact crashes was 3.4 to 6 times higher for C/K trucks than for comparable-size Ford and Dodge pickups.
Propelled by the finding, the NHTSA appeared to be moving toward a recall order, which could have forced GM to retrofit or even buy back the trucks at enormous expense.
But the NHTSA ultimately retreated after a full-court press by GM and its allies in the industry and Congress, as well as a sharp dispute within the agency over the issue. Instead of a recall, the company was allowed to settle for $51.4 million, to be spent on safety projects.
However, GM has not escaped the grief and wrath of victims--including occupants of the trucks and other vehicles with the bad luck to hit them. GM has faced scores of lawsuits from people like Anne Kirkwood.
Kirkwood was driving her Buick on an Oregon highway when a 1976 pickup suddenly skidded into her path. In the ensuing crash, her car was sprayed with flaming gasoline and her 10-year-old granddaughter was killed.
Kirkwood survived, but the fire singed her vocal cords, burned off her face, blinded her in one eye and destroyed her right leg, which was amputated below the knee. Despite 32 surgeries since the August 1994 crash, she will never escape the pain from the burns or the loss of a cherished grandchild.
Kirkwood, however, did achieve one notable victory. She could not sue GM because of an Oregon law barring suits involving defective products that are more than 8 years old. So Kirkwood's neighbors in the small town of Madras raised money to hire a lobbyist to campaign against the law. The Oregon Legislature wound up approving an exception for a single type of product: pickup trucks with side-mounted tanks.
"I knew I had a lot of friends," Kirkwood, 72, said recently, "but I didn't know how many."
Like hundreds of people before and since, Kirkwood settled her case in 1997 for an undisclosed sum. In all of these cases, GM has sought to place the blame elsewhere: on careless driving, for example, or the sheer violence of the crash.
But the image of people surviving a collision only to become human torches is too horrific to risk the reaction of jurors. As a result, GM, without admitting liability, almost always pays secret settlements rather than fight it out in court.
Over the years, GM is believed to have settled more than 300 C/K fire cases for a total of at least half a billion dollars, according to legal sources.
Obsolescence eventually will achieve what GM and the government did not. But the sturdy old trucks have been slow to cooperate.
"They last forever, and that's part of the problem," said B.J. Kincade of Catoosa, Okla., whose 29-year-old son died in a fiery wreck. "Except for the fact that they burn up, they're not a bad truck."
Before the introduction of the C/K trucks with their boxy 1970s styling, fuel tanks in GM pickups rode inside the cab behind the seat--treating passengers to the sound of sloshing gas.
To John DeLorean, head of GM's Chevrolet division when the C/K was introduced, the side-mounted tanks represented progress.
"Getting it [the tank] out of the cab--I considered that a safety improvement," DeLorean said in a recent interview.
But the design was dictated by marketing, not safety, concerns, testimony and documents show.
In its battle for market share, GM wanted bragging rights to 40 gallons of fuel capacity. But putting such a behemoth tank beneath the truck would be impossible. So the company decided to offer two 20-gallon tanks outside the frame, or dual 16-gallon tanks for a shorter model. Customers could also have a single side-mounted tank.
The C/K was not the first vehicle to carry a side-mounted tank. But by the fall of 1972, when the truck made its debut, risks of the design were well known.
An internal 1966 memo from Chrysler Corp.'s Dodge division said side-mounted tanks were "not acceptable. . . . Any side impact would automatically encroach on this area, and the probability of tank leakage would be extremely high."
This was just the scenario that claimed an early victim, a man named Leon Smith.
In December 1973, Smith was severely burned in a low-speed crash with a C/K owned by the Columbus, Ga., waterworks. An expert retained by the utility found that the truck's fuel system "was defectively designed in that it did not allow for any structural protection against side collisions."
The crash, occurring at "an effective speed of 15-20 mph," should not have been serious, said the report. "If this tank were installed inside the chassis frame . . . this loss would have obviated."
Internal memos show that GM engineers wanted to move the tank inside the frame for years before it was finally done. As a 1978 memo advised, "Moving these side tanks inboard might eliminate most of these potential leakers."
Another memo in 1980 warned that Fatal Accident Reporting System data revealed damning comparisons between the GM trucks and rival Ford and Dodge models. According to the memo, in 1977 the risk of fatal fire-related crashes had been much higher in the GM trucks.
Over the years, GM did tweak the design in small ways, such as adding a plastic shield, but delayed moving the tank inside the frame until the 1988 model year. Internal documents made clear that lawsuits by victims triggered the change.
"Pickup truck design is subject to intense pressure as the result of litigation due to post-collision fuel-fed fires," a GM memo said. "With the tank located inside the frame rail and with only one [tank] instead of two, we are reducing this concern."
So much for the later models. But what of the millions of sidesaddle trucks that were still on the road?
In 1992, the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen petitioned the NHTSA to open a safety investigation. Soon after, NBC was forced to publicly apologize for using an incendiary device to stage a GM pickup fire in a TV expose, a gaffe that GM used to argue that the trucks were being unfairly attacked.
In April 1993, in the midst of the probe, the NHTSA asked GM to conduct a voluntary recall. The company refused.
But with support from then-Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, the NHTSA continued the investigation. Then in 1994, Pena abruptly changed course, announcing the settlement, an outcome that victims and consumer groups called a disgrace.
Although the about-face spawned a string of conspiracy theories, in hindsight the battle appears to have been a mismatch from the start. Politically weak and understaffed, the NHTSA did not have "the wherewithal, the clout or the legislative support" to prevail against GM, said Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a safety advocacy group funded by the insurance industry.
In resisting a recall, GM benefited mightily from the weakness of the NHTSA's standard on fuel system safety. The standard--which didn't even apply to pickups during the first few years of C/K sales--requires that vehicles withstand a series of 20- and 30-mph crash tests with minimal leakage of fuel.
Over the years, the auto industry repeatedly defeated or delayed efforts by the NHTSA to strengthen the rule. As matters stood at the time of the safety probe, the standard was having a "minimal effect" in reducing fire-related casualties, said an NHTSA report.
Yet by complying with the rule, GM was assured a potent argument in challenging a recall in court. If the trucks met the government standard when they were made, how could the government later declare them defective?
In legal terms, moreover, time was on GM's side. Under federal law, manufacturers can't be forced to recall vehicles that are more than 8 years old--thus exempting all but the final year or two of C/K production. The best that the NHTSA could hope for was that, if the agency made a partial recall stick, GM might feel pressured to recall all the vehicles.
Strengthening GM's hand even further, several key NHTSA officials had come around to the company's view that the probe should be closed. Should the matter wind up in court, pro-GM testimony from some of the NHTSA's own experts could be devastating to the government's case.
Heading the anti-recall faction were William Boehly, NHTSA associate administrator and chief of enforcement, and Charles Gauthier, head of the NHTSA's office of defect investigation. Boehly, who retired from the NHTSA in 1997 and then served as a consultant and expert witness for GM and other auto makers, recently declined an interview request.
After leaving the NHTSA, Boehly said in a deposition that he had concluded that the fire risk, while elevated, was not "unreasonable in the sense that it was dramatically higher" than that of other vehicles.
Cabinet Secretary 'Very Frustrated'
Pena was left in an untenable position. In the beginning, he had resolved to support the NHTSA staff, and now he found himself out on a limb. "I was very frustrated . . . because I didn't understand how the position could change," he recently told The Times.
Even so, he issued an initial decision in October 1994 that the pickups were defective, a key first step in ordering a recall.
A cadre of industry allies in Congress, led by Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), filed vigorous protests. At the request of Michigan Rep. Bob Carr, the inspector general of the Transportation Department launched an investigation of Pena's actions in the case.
The chief executives of GM, Chrysler and Ford weighed in with a joint letter to President Bill Clinton, warning that Pena's stand "threatens the entire automotive industry by creating needless, unreasonable regulatory confusion."
But victims were gearing up to appear in Washington at a long-scheduled NHTSA public hearing--a media event that might still have turned the tide. "We had people lined up to testify," recalled Kincade. "There were people who had lived through the crashes, and there were people who lost family members. . . . I don't think they could have stood up to that bad publicity."
On Dec. 2, 1994, however, a few days before the hearing, Pena called a news conference to announce the $51.4-million settlement.
"We were going to save far more lives doing the settlement than in engaging in very protracted litigation," Pena recalled. "People can criticize it to death, but there would have been nothing . . . [and] I would not have been at peace with myself."
The funds were to be spent on research and education, with a portion set aside to buy child safety seats for needy families.
But the benefits were lost on future victims, such as William D. Bird of Palm Desert.
On Dec. 31, 1996, Bird was going about 30 mph when his Oldsmobile collided with a 1975 C/K that had suddenly pulled across the highway into his path.
"Immediately upon impact, without any delay and while the vehicles were still in motion, I observed bright yellow flying sparks and immediate yellow flames," said a witness in a sworn statement. "I was stunned at the rapidity of the ignition of the fire. . . . The flames were . . . at least 25 feet high."
Bird, 43, died of smoke inhalation and thermal burns, according to his death certificate. GM paid an undisclosed settlement.
In the same month that Bird was killed, Mark Godby, 33, burned to death near Yuma, Ariz., after a collision involving his C/K truck.
Godby "was yelling for help," a would-be rescuer later testified in a deposition. "The flames were . . . coming up his clothes. His . . . hair was on fire. He looked at me and then raised his hand and expired."
Godby had been heading home from the overnight shift at work, and GM said he fell asleep and drifted off the road. A lawsuit against GM is pending.
Then there was Arkansas resident Linda Jean Hudelson, killed with two of her grandchildren in March 1999. They died after Hudelson's 1985 pickup slid off a rain-slicked road and into a tree, bursting into flames.
A would-be rescuer described the scene.
"Mrs. Hudelson was already gone," the witness said in her deposition. "She was up against the driver's door. And all I could see was . . . the flames coming out of the top of her skull and out of her mouth."
An instant before the truck exploded in a fireball, the witness saw Hudelson's baby granddaughter's "little feet kicking, little hands clawing at air." Hudelson's 6-year-old grandson was yelling, " 'Mommy, help me,' " the witness said.
"Have you ever heard an animal that is trapped scream? You don't never forget it."
GM settled the case earlier this year.
"Of all the stupid design defects I've seen, I can't think of another one that was continued over so many years and so many denials by the manufacturer, and brought so much grief to so many people," said James E. Butler Jr., a Georgia plaintiffs lawyer involved in pickup cases.
People are still dying because "it would have cost a lot of money to fix--and the government wasn't about to make GM spend that kind of money," said Peter O'Neil, a plaintiffs lawyer in Seattle.
If a jury ever gets one of these cases again, "I hope they deliver a verdict that does what the bureaucrats were afraid to do," O'Neil said. "I hope they just sock it to 'em."
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Gas Tank Concerns
General Motors mounted fuel tanks outside the protective frame in more than 9 million full-sized pickups produced from 1973 to 1987. GM changed the so-called sidesaddle fuel tank design on most trucks in 1988 in response to mounting lawsuits related to the trucks' propensity to burst into flames in side-impact crashes. The outboard fuel tank design continued to be used in a small number of specialty trucks through the '91 model year.
1973-87 Gas Tanks
Before 1988, one or two 16- or 20-gallon gasoline tanks were mounted outside the rails of the truck's frame.
Post-1988 Gas Tank
After 1988, the truck frame was widened so a single 34-gallon gasoline tank could be placed inside the frame.
Source: Court-exhibited documents
Coming Monday: How General Motors fought for years to keep the wraps on a sensitive internal memo about the costs and benefits of making its fuel systems safer.