John Clark has taken to reading the product recall notices in the back of Consumers' Research magazine. He is drawn to these notices, as if they hold the secret to something about his life.
Each month there is a new list of horrors and warnings: log splitters that have chewed up human limbs, garment steamers that spit scalding water, a hinged toy chest that once killed a 14-month-old baby.The world doesn't look quite as safe to John Clark as it used to.
He is haunted these days by questions: What about the millions of people who don't read the recall notices? What about the people who are still using the Bark Buster and the Ceramic Potpourri House, oblivious to the dangers? What about products that aren't tested properly? What about the companies that don't recall products they know are unsafe?
Who, he wonders, is looking after us?
Clark is a lawyer. He lives, by and large, an orderly life. But in the early morning hours of April 21, 1989, he learned that you can't always control what happens to the people you love.
His story is there, between the lines, in two paragraphs on page 36 of Consumers' Research, May 1991, under "Product Recalls and Notices."
The item is headlined "Coffee Maker."On the night of April 20, 1989, Clark set his General Electric automatic drip coffeemaker to go off at 6 the next morning. It was a ritual he had performed probably 2,000 times before.
The next morning, while he and his family slept, two tiny mechanisms - the thermostat and a backup thermal cutoff fuse - both malfunctioned. Instead of turning off, the coffeemaker got hotter.
First it melted. Then it caught on fire. It made a crackling noise Clark thought was water splashing. When he came downstairs to investigate he saw the flames, dialed 911, then ran upstairs to help wife Carole Ann evacuate the family. What he didn't count on was how fast a fire can spread through an old house.
Within minutes the smoke was so thick and the heat so intense that it was hard to get to the sleeping children. By the time firefighters arrived, the Clark's 4-year-old son Elliot and Heather Sheehan, a 14-year-old friend of the family, were dead. Six-year-old Lauren Clark was badly burned. Two other children were unhurt.
Clark has told the story so many times. To ABC's "Prime Time Live," to the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Salt Lake media.
He is telling it now, at the Green Street Social Club. Over the loud speaker, someone is alerting the happy-hour crowd to line up for the free bus to the Jazz game. At a table upstairs, in his quiet, even voice, Clark is describing his daughter's pain during the first year after the fire.
"I hate you," Lauren would cry as Carole Ann peeled off the old bandages. "Stay away from me."
For the first year, the Clarks' evenings were filled with screams. In the daytime, Clark would lose himself in coffeemaker details. He pored over documents. He learned about coils and thermal-cutoffs.
For several months, before he realized he was being consumed by these details, Clark helped his lawyers prepare his case against General Electric and Emerson Electric, supplier of the fuse.
The suit was settled out of court last April. As part of the settlement, the Clarks asked that GE agree to recall the faulty coffeemakers.According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, nearly 9 million of the coffeemakers were sold between 1976 and 1984. The commission estimates that between 500,000 and one million were still in use before the recall.
Now, after the recall, there may still be as many as 800,000 of the coffeemakers still brewing coffee in homes across America.
"Let me tell you an ironic story," says Mike Fitz. Fitz is an engineer who has become an expert in fire and failure anaylsis. He was involved in the Clark vs. GE case and was interviewed on an October "Prime TimeLive" segment about the coffeemaker recall. He is also a volunteer firefighter in the Seattle area.
Three days after the ABC show, Fitz was called to a fire involving one of the coffeemakers. The owner, he says, had not heard about the recall.
When Rick Nelson, a "Prime Time Live" producer, traveled to Utah to film the Clarks last summer, he stayed with friends in Park City who still used one of the appliances. They had not heard about the recall either.
According to GE spokesman Chip Keeling, the company's recall effort relied on stories in national and local media, as well as notices posted in appliance stores and service centers across the country. Another option - warranty cards - was impossible, says Keeling, because the coffeemakers were so old. GE, like many other companies, naturally purges warranty cards at least every two years, he says.
If alerting consumers about recalls is an imperfect process, a game of chance really, getting companies to recall a product is even more problematic.
Clark is angry that it took General Electric two years after his fire to recall the coffeemakers. In the meantime a South Carolina man was killed when his coffeemaker malfunctioned.
According to Bill Moore, a lawyer with the Consumer Product Safety Commission in Washington, D.C., GE first alerted the CPSC about the potential hazard of the appliance in August 1990 - 15 months after the Clark fire.
The CPSC is investigating this delay, says Moore, who adds that he cannot comment further while the investigation is in progress.
He says companies are obligated to contact the CPSC when they have information "that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that a product could create a hazard."The lawyers in the Clark case are convinced that GE had that information as early as 1981. Clark's attorneys unearthed an internal GE document showing the company estimated there would be 168 claims that year involving the coffeemaker, rating the chances that no one would be hurt as only 42 percent.
GE did recall earlier coffeemakers in 1981 following a series of fires. The company altered the fuses in its newer models, but that same year the newer fuses started to fail, too. Even GE's own product engineer admitted that the fuse had "disgusting reliability," says Fitz.
Once it realized the problem with the safety fuse, GE had a responsibility to do something about it but didn't, Fitz says. In 1982, the company did design a new coffeemaker with two safety fuses - a regular fuse and a backup fuse. But GE never changed to the two-fuse design.
When Black and Decker bought GE's small appliance division in 1984, it did add the second fuse. According to Black and Decker there have been no reported fires due to fuse failures since.
GE never warned consumers about the coffeemakers because it didn't see them as hazardous, says company spokesman Keeling.
"You have to look at the broad picture," he says. Of the 9 million coffeemakers manufactured, "less than one-one-thousandth of one percent" presented a fire hazard, "and most of these were scorched countertops."
That percentage, "in our view was not within the regulatory standards of recalled products," Keeling says.
The company's reasoning does not convince John Clark.
"When you're talking about an appliance that can go off like a bomb when you're sleeping," he argues, "you ought to notify people, and notify them in a big way."
Both General Electric and Emerson Electric blame each other for the coffeemaker's malfunction.
"We were never able to figure out who was the most to blame," says Clark. "But the company we relied on was GE." Like a lot of people, the Clarks had grown up with GE appliances; they saw the TV commercials - "We bring good things to life" - and felt reassured.
"If you see the name GE you know it's the best and the safest. What they're saying is `Trust us,' " Clark says.
Consumers are lulled into thinking they're protected, he says. They're lulled by commercials, by the existence of a government agency charged with protecting them, by the little white Underwriters Laboratories tag they pull off an appliance when they bring it home from the store.
All of the institutions he relied on, he feels, let him down.
"The question I still ask, and one I've never found an answer to," says Clark, "is, `Who is there to protect anyone?' "The Clarks own a metal coffeemaker now. "But we don't use it really," says Clark. "We don't drink coffee anymore, at least at home."
When he's in a department store he often finds himself at the coffeemaker displays. He wants to see what kind of safety devices they have, he says. And whether they include warnings.
He and Carole Ann are tired of talking about the fire, and weary of the memories that the talking brings up. But they want to warn other families about the danger brewing in their kitchens. They'd like to see every one of the recalled coffeemakers returned.
GE's "one-one-thousandth of one percent" failure rate was Elliot Clark, red-haired and curious and funny. It was Heather Sheehan, whose grade-school years in Texas had left her with a lilting Southern accent. It was Lauren Clark, whose body still struggles to grow within the confines of her scars.
"We wish," says Clark, "that someone had warned us."
GE, Universal order coffeemaker recall
What: General Electric and Universal brand drip coffeemakers manufactured before April 28, 1984. To determine date of manufacture, check the code stamped on the outside metal blade of the electric plug. If the number is 418 through 600, the coffeemaker is not involved in the recall. Other GE and Universal brands not involved include Space Maker drip coffeemakers and Percolators.
How: Call GE at 1-800-443-9000. The company will send a prepaid mailing carton with instructions on how to arrange for convenient pickup. For each recalled unit returned, GE will mail the owner a $10 check.
Expert offers tips to reduce hazards of home devices
Forensic engineer Mike Fitz makes a living studying potentially deadly appliances. That's why he has strict rules in his house, he says.
His coffeemaker is never on when he's not awake or not in the house, says Fitz, a Seattle engineer. He makes sure his alarm goes off in the morning before the timer on his coffeemaker starts his coffee brewing. "I don't turn on the coffeemaker and then go out to mow the lawn either."
Fitz also never leaves the dishwasher, the clothes dryer or the washing machine on while his family sleeps. The same rule should hold true for portable electric heaters, he says.
Because he knows all the things that can go awry, he also offers the following safety tips:
- Read the recall notices published each month in Consumers' Research magazine.
- Change smoke detector batteries once a year. Fitz does this at the same time he turns his clocks back in the fall.
- At the same time, flip off all circuit breakers. They tend to get stiff, "like a guy sitting in a chair all year," says Fitz. A stiff circuit breaker can cause too much current to flow through wires, causing them to overheat.Comment on this story
- Once or twice a year, walk around the house and feel light switch and outlet cover plates while the switches are off. If any feel warm, it may mean a faulty connection that could cause a fire. If your wiring is aluminum, do this checkup once a month, Fitz says.
- Have your clothes dryer serviced at least every five years to check the thermostat and safety thermal cutoff device. Fitz vacuums his dryer once a year to clean out lint that could ignite if something goes wrong with the wiring.
- Vacuum out heater vents and have oil or gas furnaces professionally serviced annually.