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SUNDAY REPORT

A History of Fiery Deaths on the Road

Facing lawsuits, GM moved gas tanks of its C/K pickups inside the frame. But it denies the design was unsafe, and federal regulators retreated from a costly recall.

April 29, 2001|MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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