New questions arise in case of overlooked body

A dead body was found in a wrecked car at Howard Sommers Towing in Canoga Park Sunday, December 16, 2007.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Firefighters who overlooked a 72-year-old woman who died in a San Fernando Valley car wreck were on the scene for more than an hour, according to a Los Angeles Fire Department commander who reviewed dispatch records.

The disclosure was one of several that raised new questions Tuesday about why the woman’s body was not discovered until the vehicle was searched the next day in a police towing lot.

“How the hell could all those firefighters be [there] for more than an hour and not see that body?” the fire official said Tuesday.


The fire commander asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Also on Tuesday, there was a demand for an inquiry into procedures police use to check for accident victims when air bags have deployed.

In this case, the coroner’s office said the woman, Shirley Lee Williams of Paso Robles, Calif., was found in the passenger seat with her seat belt still fastened. An air bag had inflated, and police and firefighters apparently did not realize the 5-foot-3, 145-pound victim was under it.

“We need to figure out a protocol so this doesn’t happen again,” said City Councilman Dennis P. Zine, a former Los Angeles police officer who filed a motion calling for a report on the incident and a review of current rescue procedures.

It is common practice to check under an air bag after a traffic accident, but not specifically required by department policies, Officer Kate Lopez said. Fire Department officials declined to comment on their agency’s policies or any details of the case Tuesday.

“Everything is being reviewed,” Capt. Armando Hogan said.

Several agencies, including the state Emergency Medical Services Authority, are investigating why rescuers failed to discover Williams when the car driven by her son plowed into the side of a Valley office building Saturday morning.

The woman was discovered in the wreckage at a police tow yard Sunday after family members said she was missing.

The son, Steven Williams, 48, remained hospitalized in stable condition Tuesday afternoon.

A preliminary autopsy concluded that Shirley Williams survived for a few minutes after the impact and died of multiple blunt-force trauma. But how long she survived, or whether she was alive when paramedics arrived remains unclear.

The coroner’s office said the accident occurred about 10 a.m. Paramedics reported arriving on the scene at 10:13 a.m., according to the Fire Department source who reviewed dispatch records.

Also on the scene about the same time was a four-member engine company, which remained until 11:17 a.m., the source said.

The wrecked car was not removed until more than two hours after the accident, according to another source familiar with the incident who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A number of details about what transpired after the crash remained sketchy Tuesday, partly because police officers who responded were off duty and had not been formally interviewed, said Police Sgt. Lee Sands, a department spokesman.

On Monday, police officials said paramedics interviewed by detectives reported that the driver indicated that no one else was in the car.

But on Tuesday, two fire officials said there were preliminary internal reports that the driver appeared to be disoriented after the crash.

Deputy Police Chief Michel Moore, who is overseeing the LAPD’s investigation of the incident, said investigators are trying to determine whether the driver had medical problems, such as a history of seizures, that could have contributed to the accident or shed light on his state of awareness.

“We are definitely investigating whether he had medical history,” Moore said.

Fire Department records indicate that no emergency medical captain was dispatched to the scene, as is normally the case where victims may be trapped in a crash, according to the commander who spoke to The Times.

Also, firefighters who arrived on the scene minutes after the crash apparently decided it was a relatively minor incident and turned back a half-dozen additional rescuers, some trained in extracting victims from crumpled buildings and vehicles, the official said.

Apparently due to the structural damage to the building, a two-member search-and-rescue unit was summoned and arrived more than 30 minutes after the paramedics.

The dispatch decisions are likely to be scrutinized by investigators to determine whether medical supervision was adequate and the appropriate mix of personnel was at the crash in the 19200 block of West Ventura Boulevard, Fire Department commanders said.

“You lost six extra sets of eyes,” another Fire Department source, a veteran captain, said of the decision to wave off additional rescuers.

“They normally teach us to err on the side of caution” and call for extra rescuers if there is any doubt about the gravity of the incident.

Depending on the make and model of vehicle, the fact that an air bag has deployed in a car accident can signal that someone was in the passenger seat, said Jeremy Cummings, a researcher and expert witness on deployment of the safety devices.

There are sensors in the seats of many late-model cars and air bags only inflate in a crash if a passenger is present, he said.

According to Motor Trend magazine’s online used car guide, the model of car carrying the Williamses -- a 2003 Mercury Grand Marquis -- is such a vehicle.


Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.