A Special Report: St. Petersbrg Times Deadly Combination: Ford, Firestone and Florida
 
 
Deadly Combination:
Ford, Firestone and Florida
Part One
  • Main story
  • Companies warming to settlements
  • At a glance
  • The players
  • Questions and Answers
  • A Timeline
  • What the companies say
  • Interview with Anita Kumar, the reporter
  • Graphic: How the tires failed
  • Graphic: When it’s too late
  • Graphic: By the numbers
  • Graphic: The human toll

  • Part Two
  • After the rollover
  • Suspect tires still on road
  • Driver side rear tires fail the most
  • About this report

  • Contact Anita Kumar:
  • Via e-mail: Click here
  • By phone: (727) 893-8472

    Further coverage
  • In first trial, Firestone settles lawsuit
  • Battered Firestone counting on local ties
  • Rollover crashes are hard to track
  • Ford leaves 2-door SUV unchanged
  • Recall may leave Firestone bankrupt
  • Government to expand tire recall
  • FHP says Firestone tire a factor in fatal crash
  • Two bay area lawsuits target Ford, Firestone
  • Ford agrees to test replacement tires
  • Ford recall: from bad to worse?
  • Ford's sub tires may fail more
  • Attention shifts from Firestone to Ford Explorer
  • Ford widens recall; companies cut ties
  • Ford recalls Wilderness AT Firestone tires
  • Dealerships brace for Ford tire recall
  • Tire decision not just for Ford owners
  • Voluntary tire recall rolling smoothly
  • Firestone cuts deal on bad tires
  • How the tires failed: An interactive graphic

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    After the rollover

    photo
    [Times photos: Dirk Shadd]
    The watchful and somewhat nervous eyes of Eileen McGovern are visible in the rear-view mirror as she drives her three boys to a baseball game in their Dodge Durango one evening. "Are you guys all belted in?"

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 21, 2001


    A split second, a shredded tire, a tumbling vehicle: One minute the little boy was riding to Grammy's house with his family; the next, life would never be the same.

    FORT MYERS -- Six-year-old Matthew McGovern looked around his family's Ford Explorer. In the back, his two older brothers appeared to be asleep. In the front, his mom and stepdad did, too.

    Matthew called out their names and shook them to try to wake them. They didn't stir.

    He crawled out of the vehicle, which rested on its side after rolling over a dozen times, and began the trek up the embankment to Interstate 75.

    A woman who had seen the vehicle spin out of control and disappear over the side of the road was already on her way down to help.

    "Do you have a cell phone?" the little boy with the large cut across his forehead asked calmly.

    The woman looked at the sandy-haired child for a moment before handing him the phone. Matthew pushed the 11 buttons to call his grandmother in Fort Myers.

    Sixty-five miles away, Terry Von Braunsberg was waiting for her grandsons with a pot of hard-boiled eggs and colorful paints. It was the day before Easter, and she knew they would arrive in plenty of time. Matthew always believed he had to be at home or the Easter Bunny wouldn't bring him any treats.

    But instead of their voices at her front door, here was Matthew on the phone.

    "Grammy, we were in accident. It's bad, really bad," Matthew told her. "I can't wake anybody up."

    The April 22, 2000, crash on a Sarasota highway is a tragic example of the devastation caused by Florida crashes involving sport utility vehicles -- most of them Explorers -- riding on Firestone tires. A shredded tire caused the Fort Myers family's Explorer to swerve out of control and roll over.

    Matthew's stepfather, Kevin Martin, 36, who was driving, was killed instantly.

    Matthew's brother Bryan, 13, was left in a coma. His mother Eileen McGovern and another brother, Justin, 18, were unconscious but not severely injured.

    photo
    A candle burns constantly in the dining room by a photo of Kevin Martin and Eileen McGovern from Christmas 1999. Kevin was killed April 22 in an accident on I-75 in Sarasota County.

    A year later, the McGoverns are struggling to recover from Martin's death, Bryan's brain injury and the fear that keeps them awake at night. They are united by a horrifying experience none of them can remember clearly but somehow can't forget.

    Mrs. McGovern, now 40, stays home and cares for her sons, forever changed by the accident that killed the man they considered their dad.

    Bryan has learned to talk and walk again but can't keep up with schoolwork or baseball. Justin attends college and works but refuses to drive a car.

    Matthew, who had been lying across his older brothers' laps on the trip from Busch Gardens in Tampa and was not wearing a seat belt, came out of the crash physically unscathed. But the little boy who once craved independence won't leave his mom's side.

    The struggle for normality

    Bryan McGovern pitched on his Little League team. He played catch after school with his stepdad, one of his coaches. He practiced every chance he could. He wanted to be more than just a Major League player; he wanted to be a "professional baseball star."

    photo
    Bryan McGovern, 14, left, gets help in algebra from his older brother, Justin, 19, while his mother, Eileen McGovern and his younger brother, Matthew, 7, talk at the other end of the dining room table.

    He no longer has the strength to pitch. He struggles to maintain the stamina to play rightfield. He sometimes forgets what to do.

    Most nights, he comes home from the games in tears.

    "All of his aspirations and dreams are gone," Mrs. McGovern said.

    Bryan, who must wear glasses instead of contacts because of the accident, still jokes and plays pranks on his family. He even pretends to woo girls by bragging that the scar across his stomach came from a shark bite.

    But behind the laughs is a kid who still doesn't recognize some old friends, who sometimes struggles to think of the right words to express things and who doesn't have the confidence he once did.

    Bryan spent two weeks in a coma and even more time at hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Doctors told Mrs. McGovern her son was a "walking miracle" for surviving when he had only a 25 percent chance to live.

    "When he came out of the coma, he had to learn how to do everything -- walk, sleep, feed himself," Mrs. McGovern said. "He was literally in a diaper."

    photo
    Matthew McGovern, 7, sits alone on the couch to play Pokemon on his Game Boy while his mother and brothers study in the dining room.

    "I think he even forgot his own name," Matthew agreed.

    Mrs. McGovern, who has lost 15 pounds since the accident, never leaves her two youngest sons alone. She is frightened by how close she came to losing them. She makes sure they wear their seat belts.

    She has been on leave from her job as an office manager for a year. She home-schools Bryan and Matthew. Bryan doesn't attend school because he can't keep up with the classes. Matthew doesn't go because he is afraid.

    Like other little boys, Matthew is addicted to Pokemon on Game Boy. Unlike other boys his age, he clings to his mom.

    He won't get into a car without her. He will spend time with his grandparents only if she is there. And he sleeps in bed with her but sometimes wakes up with nightmares anyway.

    photo
    The shadow of Eileen McGovern is cast over the side of the pool while Bryan rests briefly at during a workout. Bryan, who lost 30 pounds while recovering from the accident, swims to rebuild his stamina and strength.

    On a recent night, he woke up at 3:45 a.m. terrified that all the men in his life had died. His mom led him to where his brothers were sleeping so he could touch their chests to make sure they were breathing.

    "That's not something a 7-year-old should think about," his mother said. "I'm hoping he's young enough to get over it."

    Before the crash, her oldest son had planned to attend Colorado State or a college up north. Today, Justin has just finished his first year at nearby Florida Gulf Coast University. He works 30 hours a week as a cook at a country club. He lives at home.

    He acknowledges he is not having the college experience he imagined. Instead, he helps raise his brothers, tutoring Bryan in algebra almost every night, and takes care of the house.

    He has become the man of the house.

    "Bryan had a lot of healing to do," said Justin, a serious, quiet young man. "I didn't want to go far from him . . . I try to pitch in as much as possible."

    photo
    Coach Bruce Bollinger has a few words with Bryan McGovern before Bryan's first time at the plate during a game. Bryan used to pitch, but now plays rightfield. His stepdad used to help coach the team.

    When Matthew was not quite 2, Mrs. McGovern and Martin started dating after she separated from her sons' father. They married in 1998. The boys' father lives out of state and sees the children twice a year.

    Their stepfather, a man described as so outgoing he could befriend a tree, became like a dad to them.

    Martin, who oversaw landscaping at a Naples subdivision, dreamed of living in a house with a huge garden. He collected baseball cards and enjoyed everything sports related. While his wife hated shopping, Martin would take the boys with him for hours.

    He had begun to plan a surprise party for his wife's 40th birthday. Mrs. McGovern found out about it only after his death, when the caterers called.

    The family was planning to build a dream house with a pitching mound, swimming pool and, of course, gardens.

    Then Martin was gone.

    The four live in the same condo they shared with him. Even when the family is asleep or out of the house, they keep a candle burning on a table next to Martin's photo. When it burns down, they light another.

    Mrs. McGovern often finds solace in Blondie, the cocker spaniel she bought for the boys after the accident. The boys joke that the friendly little dog is Martin reincarnated. Mrs. McGovern takes Blondie on long walks so she can cry without her sons seeing her.

    She uses Social Security and Martin's life insurance to make ends meet.

    She recently began to receive settlement money from Firestone, though a confidentiality agreement forbids her from naming the amount. She also recently sued Ford, which continues to mail her recall notices even though the Explorer was destroyed.

    "Every time, it's like a slap in the face," she said.

    Mrs. McGovern accuses the two companies of knowing about problems with their tires and vehicles for years, long before Martin died, and blames them for her husband's death.

    "I'd like to see them brought up on murder charges," she said. "They killed my husband, and they almost took my son away too."

    Like living through a nightmare

    photo
    "He tells the girls he got into a fight with a shark,'' says Eileen McGovern of Bryan and his scars. In addition to brain damage, Bryan suffered a crushed diaphragm, torn liver, ruptured spleen, broken ribs and collapsed lung, Eileen said.

    Just before the family purchased the 1997 Explorer from Martin's boss in December 1999, the vehicle had a 60,000-mile checkup. Mechanics replaced the front tires with Goodyears but left the rear ones.

    Those who saw the vehicle after the accident say the rear tire on the driver's side had peeled apart like an onion.

    But it wasn't until months later, when Firestone voluntarily recalled millions of tires, that the McGoverns knew what had really happened. The Explorer's rear tires were the same Wilderness AT tires being taken off the road.

    In many ways, the family's wreck at the end of a weekend trip to Busch Gardens was like other crashes in Florida. Most involved ordinary people with busy lives, traveling on sunny days along the state's highways. They were on their way home to play with their kids or heading for business meetings, to visit with neighbors or care for sick relatives.

    The McGoverns visit Martin's grave at Lee Memorial Park once a week, driving the same route as his funeral procession. They leave flowers and pray. Bryan rubs an angel on the grave marker for luck, the way he used to rub Martin's belly before baseball games.

    They visited the grave last month on the one-year anniversary, on their way out of town for Bryan's baseball tournament. It wasn't until later that they realized the date, bringing tears again.

    "It's like living through a nightmare," Mrs. McGovern said. "You think you are going to wake up."

    Now, when Mrs. McGovern takes Matthew to baseball games, she can't stop him from scouting out vehicles in the parking lot that have Firestone tires.

    photo
    Eileen McGovern, Matthew, and Bryan, along with their dog, Blondie, gather at Kevin Martin's grave with flowers at a prayer at Lee Memorial Park in Fort Myers. "We try to go once a week," Eileen says. Bryan's doctors have recommended he visit the cemetery; he missed his stepdad's funeral because he was in a coma.

     

     

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