RPT-Families of GM crash victims bring their anguish to Washington


(Repeats to add video link)

By Julia Edwards

WASHINGTON, April 1 (Reuters) – Standing on the lawn of the
U.S. Capitol on Tuesday morning in the path of an early spring
breeze, Renee Trautwein tearfully braced herself to relive the
worst morning of her life.

In a few hours, Mary Barra, the chief executive officer of
General Motors, would be pressed to answer why the
largest U.S. automaker did not act sooner to fix an ignition
switch defect that can suddenly leave certain models of its cars
without power.

Trautwein’s daughter died in one of those cars, a 2005 Chevy
Cobalt, in South Carolina on the morning of June 12, 2009 – an
accident Trautwein had previously thought was caused by her
daughter falling asleep at the wheel.

Since the recall of the vehicle earlier this year, Trautwein
now believes the car lost power and was unable to be steered.

“The first question a parent asks when they lose a child is,
‘Did they suffer?’ And now I have to relive this and I have to
know about her final seconds on this earth and the panic that
she felt. And that’s very painful,” Trautwein said as she left a
press conference held by auto safety groups, members of Congress
and families of victims ahead of the hearing.

More than 20 other parents who lost children in the recalled
cars traveled to Washington this week to attend the
congressional committee hearings investigating whether GM
knowingly delayed a recall and put the safety of drivers in
danger.

The group timed their visit around the hearings to put a
face on the recall investigation and those responsible
accountable.

The recalls, which now total nearly 2.6 million cars,
includes all model years of the Chevrolet Cobalt, Chevrolet HHR,
Saturn Ion, Saturn Sky, Pontiac G5 and Pontiac Solstice made
from 2003-2011.

The defect, caused by a weak ignition switch that can slip
out of place, has been linked to at least 13 deaths.

Barra at the hearing hinted that GM may create a victims’
compensation fund, announcing it has retained Kenneth Feinberg,
who recently oversaw the BP oil spill fund, to explore responses
to families of the victims.

Trautwine said such a fund would only “pamper the
situation,” and she would rather see the company’s leaders held
accountable.

Testifying before Congress, Barra said she could not give
lawmakers many answers about why GM waited more than a decade to
recall the faulty vehicles. She pointed to an ongoing internal
investigation.

“When we have answers, we will be fully transparent with
you, with our regulators, and with our customers,” Barra told a
House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Tuesday afternoon.

Barra is due to appear before a Senate panel on Wednesday.

The parents gathered in Washington did not press Barra for
answers but rather for action to prevent more loss of life.

The group met with Barra on Monday night at GM’s Washington
offices and took turns telling her how each of their children
were lost. Every parent was in tears and Barra dabbed her eyes
with a Kleenex, said Laura Christian, who lost her daughter
Amber Rose in a 2005 Chevy Cobalt crash in Maryland in 2005.

Christian told Reuters the group pressed Barra to mandate
that the recalled cars are taken off the road, but that Barra
declined to do so and claimed that the cars were safe if driven
with light key rings.

Cherie Sharkey of New York lost her son Michael Sharkey when
his 2006 Chevy Cobalt crashed and burst into flames. At the
press conference on Tuesday morning, she held a picture taken
just before the 2012 accident of the two of them dancing and
smiling.

” said sorry, but it wasn’t enough,” Sharkey said of
her meeting with the CEO. “I look at this picture and I’m just
completely not what I was anymore.”

As the parents have put their stories in the public eye over
the short two-day span in which Barra testifies, the group has
gotten an up-close look at Washington-style public relations.

They have been rushed to meetings with members of Congress,
live TV interviews, press conferences, congressional hearings,
and closed-door meetings with government regulators.

Ken Rimer traveled from Wisconsin to honor his stepdaughter,
Natasha Weigel, who died in a 2005 Chevy Cobalt crash in 2006.
Before the trip, he told Reuters he didn’t know “how Washington
works” and that he expected “to get pushed around.”

But Rimer said running from place to place and sharing their
stories has brought the group some solidarity.

“For those who lose a child, it’s a special club that no one
wants to be a member of,” said Rimer.

(Reporting by Julia Edwards, Editing by Karey Van Hall, Bernard
Orr)