7 years after Wisconsin crash, parents try to comfort driver, get answers
HAMMOND, WIS. – She’s faced off against the CEO of General Motors, attended a congressional hearing and filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in Minnesota. Recent weeks have been a whirlwind for Jayne Rimer, more than seven years after her only child was killed in a crash now suddenly linked to a defective ignition switch.
At Rimer’s quiet western Wisconsin home though, reminders of Natasha Weigel sprout up everywhere. There’s Abby, the now-aging golden retriever her daughter raised as a puppy — and a misshapen, deer-nibbled tree they planted in Natasha’s memory after she died in 2006 following an 11-day coma. “Abby has the same auburn color hair as Natasha,” Rimer said. “And that funky looking evergreen has character, kind of like my daughter.”
GM’s recall of 1.6 million cars, including the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt whose back seat Natasha was riding in when she died, has triggered dozens of lawsuits alleging the giant carmaker knew about the faulty ignition switches for a decade.
Tough questions are being asked, too, about why the government’s auto industry watchdog, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, didn’t act more aggressively, after its commissioned study of the Wisconsin crash revealed that inadvertent contact with ignition switches could cause engines to shut down. At least six other similar complaints about Chevy Cobalts suddenly stopping were mentioned in the April 2007 report — yet the recall wouldn’t be ordered for seven more years.
But as the legal wrangling begins, Rimer wants more than the truth to come out and the automaker and NHTSA to be held accountable. She deeply wants to connect to the woman driving that night — the crash’s sole survivor.
She’s never met Megan Phillips, now 24, who’s working in a furniture business and living 120 miles south of Hammond in Adams, Minn. For years, Phillips has shouldered the blame for killing 18-year-old Natasha and 15-year-old Amy Rademaker. The trio, just casual acquaintances, had bumped into one another in Woodville, Wis., that autumn day and gone shopping at Wal-Mart in Hudson.
They were heading home, 6 miles from Rimer’s house in Hammond, when the car shut down, launched in the air on Highway N at nearly 60 mph, clipped a roadside utility box and smashed into trees without the air bags deploying. No one was wearing seat belts, and Phillips, then 17, was driving with a learner’s permit that required an adult.
Rimer has reached out to Phillips repeatedly since news of the recall broke in recent months, hinting that a defective car — not an inexperienced teen driving down a country road — was the overriding factor behind the tragedy.
“I have tried to contact her four different times and never got a response,” said Rimer. a physical therapist. “I think she suffers from survivor’s guilt, but I’d love to talk to here and I pray that one day soon some healing can begin to take place.”
Phillips declined to talk this week, saying on her southern Minnesota front porch that what happened is still too upsetting. She suffered some brain damage, internal injuries and a broken arm in the crash and remembers little, but she has said she stayed away from the other families involved because she didn’t know what to say to ease their grief.
Natasha’s father and Rimer’s ex-husband, Doug Weigel, has tried reaching out, too. But the Albert Lea tow truck driver and mechanic has been able to trade only a couple of text messages with Phillips.
“I think she needs a big hug and someone to tell her it’s OK,” said Weigel, who works for the National Guard in Rochester and was deployed to Kosovo nine months after his daughter’s death.
Natasha Weigel was living with her dad and had just graduated from Albert Lea High School, where she played goalie on the varsity hockey team despite her 95-pound frame. Her grave at Albert Lea’s Hillcrest Cemetery is easy to find: It sits beneath a full hockey goal, her stick and a stone engraved: “An Unfinished Life — God Needed a Goalie.”
Weigel said he had “kind of gotten used to the facts of life,” that teenagers sometime die on rural roads. Then word of the recall “brought everything back like a storm,” he said. “It’s been mind-boggling, and I hope Congress gets some answers out of GM.”
Natasha’s parents, along with her stepdad, Ken Rimer, flew to Washington last week to attend hearings as lawmakers grilled GM CEO Mary Barra and the acting head of the NHTSA.
“Natasha’s family always had her back — now her family needs to know that someone has their backs,” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said. “They deserve to know why their concerns went unanswered year after year, even as it became clear that these ignition switches were defective and that the cars were dangerous.”
What a mother feels
The night before the hearing, the families’ lawyer, Robert Hilliard, arranged for a private meeting between the embattled Barra and relatives who’d lost loved ones.
When Barra came to the Rimers and said she was sorry for the family’s loss, Jayne read a few paragraphs she’d written.
“I wanted her to feel what a mother feels,” she said.
She told the CEO about all the pain from 2006 returning, how her daughter would never be a bride, never be a hockey player.
“There is a hole in my heart and life forever,” she said. “I’m not sure she really heard those words. I was hoping for a more personal response.”
The exchange was “very moving,” according to Hilliard, the Texas lawyer who helped Koua Fong Lee of St. Paul get out of prison after a court found Toyota liable for an unexpected acceleration problem that killed three people in 2006.
“I sat across from the CEO, and she was attentive and empathetic and I saw her wipe her eyes a few times,” Hilliard said from Corpus Christi.
He said he is representing 30 families who lost loved ones in GM defective ignition cases as well as dozens seriously injured.
“We’re going after GM for what they did,” he said. “They have blood on their hands and hid what they knew for 10 years when they could have fixed this problem before this accident and saved their lives.”
More than a dozen people have died in 31 crashes when GM air bags failed to work because of the ignition problem. GM spokesman Greg Martin said in an e-mail the company is “committed to doing business differently.”
“We are conducting an unsparing, comprehensive review of the circumstances leading to the ignition switch recall,” he said. “We recognize the current scrutiny placed on GM and we expect to be measured by our response to this extraordinary situation.”
GM attorneys might try to argue that the company, which emerged from bankruptcy after a government bailout a few years ago, isn’t legally responsible for the mistakes of the old GM.
“Ms. Barra has worked there for more than 30 years and was part of the purchasing executive group,” Jayne Rimer said. “So she knew all about this faulty part.”
The family and its lawyer are also braced for the lack of seat belts to be brought up as the case proceeds.
“Yes, that would have helped them survive, but it’s kind of a moot point,” Ken Rimer said. “If the car hadn’t shut down and gone off the road, they wouldn’t have needed seat belts.”
Added Hilliard, “If GM attempt to do any finger-pointing and blames these young girls who didn’t have their seat belts on, it will only inflame the jury.”
A tough club to join
The Rimers thumbed through a photo album of Natasha’s life in their rolling hillside home. There were photos from the Peace Lutheran Church youth group and the hockey rink. Images of the homemade bracelets she’d pile on her wrist and the poems she’d written.
“She was so tiny, I wanted her to be a figure skater, but she said, ‘Mom, I want to be a hockey player,’ so I gulped and said, ‘OK if that makes you happy, you can play hockey.”
Her stepdad sighed and said, “We’ve had these nagging questions, and we knew what happened but not why it happened. Somebody really messed up, but we don’t know who all did it.”
Meeting with other victims’ families in Washington was comforting.
“We’re part of a club you wouldn’t wish on anyone,” Jayne said. “But’s it’s actually beautiful to meet people going through what we’ve been through and to become close as new friends.”
Now she only hopes Phillips, the driver that night, will learn how good that support feels.
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767