Lincoln Township, Mich.— Every night, Pam Harding says she speaks to her dead son, Joey, asks why he had to die and cries herself to sleep.
For five years, she’s tried to accept she’d never know all the details of his death. The country road was wet and winding. The 19-year-old was driving fast and lost control of a borrowed 2006 Chevy Cobalt. It slammed into a tree, breaking his neck and killing his best friend, Zachary Schoenbach, 19.
Police in the small town near St. Joseph in southwest Michigan blamed drunken driving. But as the families mourned, a private investigator for General Motors quietly began probing the crash. Black box data indicated the car may have malfunctioned before the Sept. 13, 2008 crash, police reports obtained by The Detroit News show.
The families say they were never told. Pam Harding read the reports for the first time Friday in her small home in nearby Baroda. They conclude a “system failure” may have thwarted the air bags from firing even though the car hit the tree head-on.
“They knew. They knew. That’s what hurts so bad. I lost my son for a measly part,” said Harding, 51, sobbing and reaching for an asthma inhaler to keep from hyperventilating. “My son was my world. He was my everything. And they just took him away from me.”
She’ll be listening when GM CEO Mary Barra and federal regulators testify today and Wednesday before congressional committees about ignition defects linked to 13 vehicular deaths. Relatives of drivers killed from Maryland to Idaho also are expected to gather today in Washington, D.C., for a news conference before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing.
Neither Harding nor Schoenbach’s mother, Krystal Kolberg, will attend. They didn’t know until last week that GM investigated the crash or informed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about it in 2008.
“We never knew what was going on,” said Kolberg, 49, who wears a heart-shaped locket with a photo of her only son.
“I lost my son. The worst thing in the world happened. We grieved, the whole nine yards and never knew GM had this problem. And now we learn it? It’s a very, very hard thing.”
Death estimate disputed
GM has recalled 2.59 million cars because ignitions can switch off, causing the engine to shut off and disabling power steering and air bags. GM hasn’t identified which deaths it ties to the defect, but the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Center for Auto Safety has said the carmaker’s estimate is too low.
It analyzed federal data and found as many as 57 deaths in crashes with complaints of equipment failure in 2003-11 Cobalts and Saturn Ions. The Lincoln Township wreck is the only one from Michigan on that list.
“It’s 13 deaths that they know of,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the group. “There is no way of knowing how many there are.”
Harding and Schoenbach died one year after the NHTSA opted against opening a formal investigation into a series of air bag failures in Cobalts and other small cars due to ignition defects.
Three weeks after the wreck, a private investigator for GM contacted local police seeking accident reports, police reports indicate. The automaker opened a file and referred to the crash as “the Harding incident,” according to a class-action suit against GM filed in San Francisco.
The sequence of events makes it “very plausible” that GM “strongly suspected” an ignition problem, said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies, a Massachusetts auto research group. A State Police report found that several fields of black-box data were invalid, which “might suggest that there was a system failure during the communication process and the (sensing diagnostic module) did not receive the needed data to fire the bags.”
The report does not indicate whether the ignition shut off.
GM spokesman Greg Martin declined comment on the crash, citing an internal probe as well as federal investigations.
“We are fully cooperating with NHTSA and the Congress and we welcome the opportunity to help both have a full understanding of the facts,” he said in a statement. “Today’s GM is committed to learning from the past while embracing the highest standards now and in the future.”
GM fulfilled its legal responsibility by reporting the crash to NHTSA, Kane said. The federal agency asked for no additional documents, records show.
“Should GM have notified families? In a perfect, ethical world, of course,” Kane said. “But you and I both know no company is going to hand over their liabilities to their potential enemies.”
Victim's mom can't bear loss
To hear Pam Harding tell it, her son and Schoenbach weren’t the only ones who died that wet, awful morning 30 miles north of the Indiana border.
“It destroyed my life,” said Pam Harding. “After my son died, I just became a hermit for two years. I turned to eating and smoking cigarettes. That was my life.”
That night, the teens and other friends were in her garage moving a ping-pong table. She went to bed around 11 p.m. At some point, the 19-year-olds borrowed the Cobalt of their friend, Matthew McConomy, who was spending the night.
Schoenbach was a playoff wrestler at Lakeshore High School in nearby Stevensville. Harding dropped out, worked as a landscaper but hoped to get his degree and become a veterinarian. The longtime friends enjoyed typical teen pastimes — video games, basketball and snowboarding.
They may have gone to Burger King. No one saw the car hit the tree at 3 a.m. Data pulled from its black box suggest it was going 85 mph just five seconds before it swerved across Stevensville-Baroda Road, slowed to about 54 mph and hit a tree near a small creek.
The speed limit is 45 mph. There were no skid marks.
The wreckage was so bad that a paramedic had to amputate Schoenbach’s leg to remove him from the Cobalt. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt and lived for a few hours.
Harding wore his seatbelt but was dead at the scene. His facial injuries were so severe that police for hours believed that McConomy died. Eventually, Harding was identified by a Pepsi sweatshirt his mother gave him.
Blood tests showed that Harding, a skinny kid who weighed about 135 pounds, had a 0.12 blood-alcohol content. The families asked questions but never got far.
“The police said they didn’t know what happened or why the air bags didn’t go off,” said his father, Joseph Harding Sr., 57. “We didn’t do anything because it wouldn’t bring my son back.”
Lincoln Township Police Chief Dan Sullivan refused to discuss the crash in detail last week.
“We investigated it thoroughly,” he said. “We would have no way of knowing anything about a recall that was going to happen in another six years.”
Other drivers involved in Cobalt crashes had alcohol in their systems. The air bags still should work, said Ditlow of the auto safety group.
“The alcohol only goes to the cause of the crash, not whether you survive or not,” he said.
Within two years of the wreck, Joseph Harding lost his job as a die maker. The family fell behind on the mortgage and filed for bankruptcy in 2010 to keep the house. Pam Harding has a daughter from a previous relationship, but the death meant her husband outlived both his kids. Years ago, his only daughter died of meningitis.
He and his wife long ago planned to scatter their son’s ashes. They’re still on a dresser upstairs. “I can’t do it because it’s like I’m losing him all over again,” Pam Harding said, crying.
“We will never know, but at least GM could tell me why the air bag never deployed and how many other people this happened to. ... I don’t think any parent needs that knock on the door.”
Detroit News Staff Writer Melissa Burden contributed.