NEW YORK — When police got to the scene of a minor car accident in Alhambra, California in September 2013, they thought the driver, Hai Ming Xu, had been shot in the face.
A similar conclusion was reached by Orlando police responding to an accident a year later — they believed that the driver, Hien Thi Tran, had been the victim of a stabbing that might have caused the accident.
But what allegedly killed both drivers was the device put in their cars to protect them – an airbag manufactured by Takata. Lawsuits and police reports say these airbags have exploded with such force that they sent shrapnel flying into the car’s drivers, fatally wounding Xu and Tran.
Xu’s accident was in the parking lot of the restaurant where he worked. His 2002 Acura TL hit the wall of a nearby building and the airbag deployed.
Tran survived for three days after her accident before dying in the hospital. Police were initially so sure she had been attacked with a knife that their investigation even produced a “person of interest,” according to her family’s lawsuit. But an autopsy released this week found that the cause of death were the metal and plastic fragments that cut her neck.
Court records and police reports show two other fatalities tied to the exploding airbags, which were also both in Honda cars:
Ashley Parkham, killed in a 2009 accident in Midwest City, Oklahoma. Gurjit Rathore, killed in Richmond, Virginia on Christmas Eve, 2009.
Roughly 8 million of those airbags have now been recalled by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The cars are manufactured by 10 different automakers, but about 5 million Honda and Acura models, both made by Honda, are affected.
Not everyone injured died as a result of the accident. The Center for Auto Safety lists nine serious injuries. At least two victims had metal pieces lodge in their eyes, permanently damaging their eyesight.
In most cases the airbags deployed during a minor accident. But one lawsuit charges that the airbags in a 2001 Honda Civic deployed for no apparent reason while the car was stopped at a red light.
The driver in that case, Kristy Williams, barely survived the 2010 accident. Shrapnel tore into her carotid artery. She was able to insert two fingers into the wound to stop the bleeding, and a nearby pedestrian put pressure on the neck wound until help arrived. But she still had several strokes and now suffers from traumatic brain injury, according to her suit.
Takata’s airbag problem got further scrutiny Thursday at a Senate committee hearing on the problem.
Executives from Honda, Takata and Fiat Chrysler testified. Also appearing was Air Force Lt. Stephanie Erdman, whose eye was injured by airbag shrapnel.
She had a minor car accident in Destin, Florida, two days before the accident that killed Xu.
“My passenger only had mild scrapes and bruises,” she told lawmakers. “I should not have been injured in the shocking and terrifying way that I was.”
A jagged piece of metal shot through Erdman’s airbag and imbedded itself in her right eye, while also fracturing her right nasal bone. At the hearing Thursday she displayed a graphic photograph of herself with a chunk of metal protruding from her right eye.
“I was instantly blinded on my right side,” she said. “I felt blood gushing down my neck. I was terrified. My vision will never be the same. I will never be the same.”
Takata executive Hiroshi Shimizu, who also testified Thursday, apologized to the victims. “We are deeply sorry and anguished,” he said.
For its part, Honda has not been granted access to the car in Xu’s case but has confirmed that ruptures of the driver’s airbags occurred in the other cases, according to spokesman Chris Martin.
“Honda extends its deepest and heartfelt sympathies to all of those who have been injured, and to all of the families of those who have died, as a result of this product issue,” he Martin.;