Driver dies after breathing in airbag gases

The Northern Echo: Ronald Smith Ronald Smith

A driver died after breathing in fumes from an airbag during a car crash, an inquest heard.

Ronald Smith inhaled noxious chemicals after the airbag was deployed when he was involved in an accident.

Although unhurt in the smash, the 59-year-old began suffering chest and breathing problems almost immediately after coming into contact with the gas.

His wife noticed his face was reddened after exposure to the contents of the safety device.

South Tyneside Coroner Terence Carney heard Mr Smith, of Whitby Avenue, South Bents, near Whitburn, died in January, after the accident on November 12, 2010.

His widow, June Smith, from Marsden, South Shields, said: “I knew from the very beginning that it was the airbag. I just knew.

“It’s just not fair that you have to lose someone because of something that is meant to save a life.”

Mr Smith, a father-of-two, was driving through Hartlepool on his way home, when he was involved in a six-car shunt.

The engineer, originally from Paisley, Scotland, crashed into the car in front at the same time that another hit the back of his Vauxhall Insignia.

The impact set off the car’s airbag, but also broke a window, which cut the bag, and he inhaled the gas from inside it.

Mrs Smith told the inquest that her husband was not injured in the accident, but that his face was red from an irritation caused by the contents of the airbag.

She said that following the crash, he then began suffering from a cough and shortness of breath.

On January 5 last year, he was taken to South Tyneside District Hospital.

Mrs Smith said: “He just couldn’t breathe and he was very distressed.

“He could barely move. It was a very cold winter, and he was really struggling.

“We used to walk everywhere and he was always out every night with the dog, but he got so bad that he couldn’t even walk a few steps without my help.”

Mr Smith was taken to the hospital’s accident and emergency unit where he was given a chest X-ray and, the next day, he was moved to intensive care and died in hospital on January 31, last year.

Forensic pathologist, Dr Stuart Hamilton told the inquest that Mr Smith’s lungs were both extremely “heavy and firm”.

Dr Hamilton said they showed signs of infection and that he died of bronchial pneumonia.

Mr Carney said: “I accept that the death was attributed to bronchial pneumonia and pulmonary fibrosis and that it was developed after this incident in November, and the deceased’s exposure to noxious substances.

“This man died as a result of this incident and more pointedly because of the explosion of his airbag, and this death should be recorded as misadventure.”

Mr Smith’s son, Lee, 36, said: “It’s the verdict I was looking for.

“Ever since it happened we wanted an investigation to see if anybody was to blame and I’m happy with what the coroner has said.”

A spokesman from Vauxhall said that the company planned to investigate the matter, but did not wish to comment at this stage.

The AA said the motoring organisation had no record of similar deaths.

A spokesman said: “In the event of a crash, sensors in a car, behind the bumper for example, measure the rate of deceleration.

“If the impact is severe enough, an explosive device triggers the inflation of the airbag.

“In some systems a sodium azide tablet is fitted inside, and this is ignited electronically.

“When it ignites it produces nitrogen, which inflates the airbag.

“Nitrogen already makes up 78 per cent of the air we breathe so it’s not hazardous.

“As soon as the bag has fully inflated it starts to deflate – once it’s taken the force.

“A lot of powder is also released. This is mainly talcum powder, which manufacturers use as a lubricant to help the airbag slide into the correct position during assembly.

“Some systems use canisters of a cellulose-based gas to inflate the airbag, but this isn’t regarded as toxic either.

“We have checked our records and cannot find any similar cases, but this death is very sad.”

Ronald Smith had two sons, Jamie, 32 and Lee, 36 and a grandson, Aaron, 10.

His widow June said: "I knew from the very beginning that's what it was [the powder in his lungs].

"It wasn't normal because he wasn't like that, he never got colds.

"He had always been so healthy and was extremely fit.

"I knew from the beginning that it was the air bag but other people would look at me as if to say 'don't be silly'

"He told me about the white powder straight away.

"He said there was so much of it he couldn't see.

"It's still a shock, I still forget he's gone sometimes.

"He was a great dad to his sons and he adored his grandson.

"He would always be showing him things in the garden and how to do everything.

"We were a close family we went on holiday with everyone every year.

"The last holiday we had together was to the Isle in Skye and that's the way I always want to remember him.

"If I had to have a fitting tribute to Ronnie, the last thing I would remember would be that.

"Ron was a marine engineer, and we met when he moved in over the road from my mum, as a lodger.

"We married in 1972.

"He was away on the boats quite a lot of the time with work, just before Lee was born he was away for 11 months.

"It was hard being alone with two small boys but Ronnie and I made it work.

"When he came home from the car crash, I was just relieved that he was ok.

"Not long after that I noticed that he wasn't right, he would become breathless walking up the drive.

"Ronnie has never smoked so that was very worrying.

"He started to cough a lot as well, I just thought that the white powder had got into his lungs.

"I thought his body would get rid of it by itself, I didn't think it would be permanent.

"Then when it didn't stop we thought he might have caught a cold because the winter that year was particularly harsh.

"Eventually I got him into hospital, he kept saying that he would be fine and he just needed rest.

"But he was practically disabled, he couldn't move and could only sit on the sofa propped up with cushions.

"I got worried because at night his breathing was so shallow and frantic, it was like he couldn't catch his breath at all.

"He was put on oxygen as soon as he went into hospital.

"A few days later he was put into intensive care and a few days after that he was put on a ventilator.

"That was the last time I spoke to him because he was on a ventilator for the last 21 days of his life.

"I wished they had waited to put him on the ventilator so I could have said something to him.

"The consultant called me and the boys into a room and told us that Ron was very seriously and there was only a 10 per cent chance of survival.

"I knew then that he wasn't going to come home.

"He was on the ventilator for 21 days, if they tried to take him off his face turned blue.

"The powder seemed to have fused together so that nothing could get between them.

"It's been an awful year, I lost my dad five months after Ronnie passed on.

"I've got to be strong now, but there has been a few times I've not known where to go.

"Everyone deals with it differently, Jamie got depressed after his dad died and Lee is very quiet so I never know what he's thinking.

"I haven't really had time to grieve properly, I sometimes still think he's just gone away for a few days."

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