It’s an event seared into the fabric of American history.
When Timothy McVeigh walked away from the flatbed Ryder truck he’d rented four days prior, it was with every intent to kill. Nearly 4,800 pounds of ammonium nitrate, a powerful and unstable explosive used in the mining industry, lay dormant in the back. As he tossed the keys away, a pair of two and five minute fuses ticked down to what would become the most deadly act of domestic terrorism ever perpetrated on United States soil: the Oklahoma City bombing.
Fourteen years later, and almost as many miles away, a teenage girl named Ashley Parham pulled into the parking lot of her Midwest City, OK high school. The 2001 Honda Accord she drove carried another ticking time bomb; this one, though, only a pinhead’s worth. When she crashed at low-speed into another car, the ammonium nitrate exploded, propelling her airbag outward just as anyone might have predicted… short the metal shrapnel that peppered into her carotid artery.
She’d been on her way to pick her brother up from football practice. She never knew what hit her.
When Japanese manufacturer Takata Industries set out to make airbags in 1995, it had been with every intent to save lives. At the time, Takata was better known for their seatbelts—then only a minor player in the airbag game—until they struck upon a way to cut costs.
The most common propellant then used to inflate airbags was the chemical tetrazole, preferred by other manufacturers (and their Swedish competition, Autoliv) for its relative stability. But the eminently cheaper ammonium nitrate, Takata thought, could also be used to trigger the inflator in a collision—provided it could be stabilized, too.
In a patent application filed that year, Takata noted how the compound was vulnerable to changes in temperature—something it would need to withstand in order to survive in fluctuating weather conditions, such those experienced throughout its target markets. The concern expressed—in the actual phrasing of the patent—was that excessive pressure could mean its casing “might even blow up.” Nevertheless, Takata provided reassurance that they would be able to stabilize it. There was nothing to worry about.
With cheaper propellant came an airbag that cost less to produce. To an automotive industry perennially starving for new, novel ways to cut costs, Takata was food for the Gods—General Motors, Acura, Honda all placed orders. Thirty other automakers would soon join them at the table.
Between 2001 and 2003, Takata airbags were installed in more than 1,000,000 Honda and Acura vehicles. It’s many of these that would prove most deadly. The “Alphas,” they would become known as.
The first inkling of trouble came in 2003, when Charlene Weaver of Arizona died following a fatal explosion from a Takata airbag. She’d been a passenger in a 2004 Subaru Impreza. The first recall, initiated by Honda, wouldn’t come until 2008.
Honda first started to worry in 2004, when a 2002 Accord exploded in Alabama. In response, Takata Industries reassured their client that this incident was nothing but an anomaly; one in a million, really. But Takata was worried too.
Privately, the company began collecting inflators from junkyards—not initially to cover anything up, but to test them themselves. Only two of the fifty Takata airbags they tested malfunctioned, but just one was enough. If Takata’s secret tests began with a whisper, they were to be shut down bound and gagged—their technicians ordered to erase whatever noisome data they had.
Some 5,000 miles away a mother drove her son to school, but the canary in the coalmine could sing no more, and the world was never the wiser.
Thus far, 22 people have been killed worldwide, and hundreds more injured. The result: the largest recall ever. And it only seems to be growing.
The Alpha airbags were the baddest apples of the already spoiled bunch—some of the first installed, and those responsible for 11 of the 15 U.S. fatalities so far. These airbags, which Takata admitted in a confidential 2015 document submitted to Congress, had “been left in work stations