They told Donna Gilbert the person whose head was wrapped in bandages and whose body was a crush of broken bones was her daughter. But there was no way Gilbert could tell from looking at her, so swollen and bruised was her face.

It was only after she checked for her daughter’s butterfly tattoo on a thigh that she was sure.

“He (the doctor) said ‘Prepare yourself for the worst,’ ” Gilbert recalled. “I kept shaking my head and saying, ‘No, this isn’t my daughter.’

“So we pulled the sheet up, and saw the tattoo and that was it.”

Hours earlier, Gilbert’s daughter, Jacqueline, had been flown by medevac helicopter from Chambersburg in southeastern Pennsylvania to the Hershey (Pa.) Medical Center after her 2010 Chevrolet Cobalt veered off northbound Route 11, slid on its side, and smashed into a utility pole. A state trooper called Donna Gilbert around 5 a.m. on May 5, 2012, at home in Philadelphia, about 45 minutes after the crash.

A short time later, Donna Gilbert was in a car with her ex-husband and his wife, driving to Hershey, where doctors told her they didn’t know whether Jackie would regain consciousness.

“I lost all track of time,” Gilbert, an office worker for the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation department, says of the anxious hours and days that followed.

Of the things that happened the night her Chevy Cobalt veered off the road, Jacqueline Gilbert remembers very little.

And that is probably a good thing.

Gilbert, 27, suffered severe head injuries and multiple broken bones and spent 15 days at the Hershey Medical Center in a coma, where she underwent surgery to relieve a blood clot on her brain.

When she regained consciousness, a painful recovery began. She had to learn again how to talk, eat, read the military manuals she needed for her work as a military police sergeant in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, how to shop, and how to read a newspaper.

Simple things she had taken for granted, like bathing and dressing, were, for a time, tasks that required the help of her mother. Her speech is still occasionally slurred, she is unable to drive yet, and she has short-term memory lapses requiring her to write to-do lists and program her cellphone alarm for many daily tasks.

On April 4, Jacqueline Gilbert joined a growing legion of owners of Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions, and other General Motors cars who have sued the auto manufacturer, alleging the company was aware of a safety defect in ignition systems but failed to alert the public.

According to government regulators, and the carmaker itself, the GM models’ ignitions have a tendency to slip into the “off” position if slightly jostled, or even if a driver uses a too-heavy key ring. That, in turn, shuts off the power steering and brakes, making the car harder to control, and prevents the air bags from inflating.

Gilbert’s lawyers, the Philadelphia plaintiffs firm Eisenberg Rothweiler Winkler Eisenberg & Jeck PC, say even though the car was junked and the ignition system no longer is available for inspection, the long record of safety problems makes it the likely cause of the accident. Just as important, photos of the crashed car show its air bags did not inflate.

“It is clear that in this accident, none of the air bags deployed, even though there was a significant collision,” said Gilbert’s lawyer, Nancy Winkler. “What we do want manufacturers to do is to produce products that are safe. They knew they had these faulty ignition switches in their cars, they have known for years, and not only did they not change the part, they didn’t recall the vehicles; they didn’t warn the public.

“What they should have done is said, ‘Park your car on the side of the road.’ ”

Gilbert, who earned a criminal justice degree in 2009 from Shippensburg University, is likely one of hundreds, if not thousands, of motorists with claims against GM and Delphi Automotive PLC, maker of the ignition switch.

All signs point toward a legal and political maelstrom that could take years to resolve.

The problem for GM is that it had known about the faulty ignitions for nearly a decade but failed to alert the public until February, when it recalled some 2.6 million cars.

So far, GM said 13 deaths had been linked to the ignition switches, a number likely to mount. In addition to individual claims such as Gilbert’s, lawsuits seeing class-action status have been filed in Texas, California, and New York.

GM has hired lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who administered victims compensation funds after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the BP gulf oil spill, and the Pennsylvania State University sexual molestation cases, to explore the extent of General Motors’ liability and ways victims might be compensated.

The issue has taken on a political dimension, as well.

In Washington, House and Senate panels grilled new GM Chief Executive Mary T. Barra in separate hearings earlier this month, with lawmakers accusing the company of a cover-up and incompetence. At the same time, the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan launched a criminal probe and is looking at whether GM officials concealed problems in the Cobalt and other cars from federal regulators.

If there is a criminal case to be made, it likely would center on the responsibility General Motors had to report safety defects to federal regulators, said Ron Sarachan, co-chair of the white-collar defense group at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP and former chief of major crimes at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia. But showing that the people at GM who were aware of the defect also had a responsibility to report it can be difficult, Sarachan said.

“That is a challenge for a prosecutor in any white-collar case,” he said. “It is possible that the people who have knowledge of the defect are not even in communication with the government. It really comes down to what sort of internal reporting there was at GM.”

Jacqueline Gilbert had left a party in Chambersburg in the early-morning hours to return to her apartment in Shippensburg. She had traveled barely a mile and a half on Route 11 north before her car went off the road.

She has no memory of the crash, which occurred around 4:15 a.m. in fog, according to the police accident report. There is no evidence another vehicle was involved, nor is there evidence alcohol played any role.

Winkler says before Gilbert drove off, she texted a friend to say she was leaving but failed to press the send button on her cellphone. The message remained on her screen. As a result, state troopers who recovered the phone but who never interviewed Gilbert listed texting as a cause of the crash in their preliminary report, a determination that Winkler says is wrong and contradicted by what Gilbert can recall of that night.

Donna Gilbert said she practically moved into the hospital in Hershey, sleeping in chairs and on a sofa in a visitors’ section.

When her daughter finally awoke from the coma, Donna Gilbert said, she held her daughter’s hand and said, “Hi, baby. It’s Mommy.”

Her daughter then mouthed, “My Mommy.”

Both women describe a long, excruciating rehabilitation. After three and a half weeks at Hershey, Gilbert spent more than three weeks at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, where she received physical and speech therapy and other treatments.

Donna Gilbert broke away from her city job twice each day to join her daughter at Magee, and went straight to the hospital after work, where she stayed until about 10 p.m., until her daughter had gone to sleep.

The process has been frustrating for both. Donna Gilbert said her daughter had always had plenty of drive and independence. Suddenly finding herself unable to do simple things caused great frustration and, on occasion, anger.

“It was emotionally difficult for both of us,” Donna Gilbert said. “She was so independent (before the accident).”

“I just nodded my head and took it,” she said of her daughter’s bursts of anger.

Comment on this story

For her part, Jacqueline Gilbert has rejoined her National Guard unit at Johnstown, Pa., training with it at regular intervals. She works part-time at Magee and does volunteer work.

Pretty and alert, Jacqueline Gilbert was unwaveringly upbeat in an interview. But she is well aware of the tough road she has had to travel.

“There was no giving up,” she said of her recovery. “I had worked too hard in college not to be able to use that, and I had worked too hard as a soldier not to be able to go back to that.”

©2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at Distributed by MCT Information Services