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Drivers Describe Moment Of Impact

What happens when an air bag deploys? Some Spokane and North Idaho residents shared these experiences:

Susan Baumann, 53, left work not feeling well on Dec. 1, 1995. The insurance agent was driving home on Day-Mt. Spokane Road when she blacked out.

Her 1995 Subaru Legacy went over an embankment, plunged 15 feet into a ravine and landed in a creek of stumps. She came to in pain.

Her air bag had deployed.

“In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t imagine what had happened to me. My face was bleeding and my back hurt. … I couldn’t breathe. I was in the middle of nowhere just screaming.”

The Subaru was totaled. In shock, she thought the car was going to blow up and felt that she had to fight the air bag to get out.

Before the accident - her first ever - she pictured the air bag as “a big white cloud that would embrace you in its arms and keep you safe.”

At 5 feet 7 inches, she had never been told to sit back from the steering wheel and tended to sit fairly close. Then her air bag deployed.

“Imagine yourself being ejected at 200 miles an hour and hitting a brick wall, that’s what it’s like,” she said.

A ring with a raised setting was shoved back, gouging her cheek. Baumann suffered a broken bone in her spine at the base of her ribs.

“I don’t know if it kept me from going through the windshield or if it broke a bone in my back,” she said. “I won’t ever know.”

Her body took such a drubbing that bruising lasted until April. She could work only half-days for four months. Her face and wrists were burned from the friction and heat of the air bag. Her seat belt left bruises on her body.

Since the accident, she insists her toddler grandson sit in the back seat, away from the passenger-side air bag. She “overdrives,” taking side streets during snowstorms. One evening, she wanted to get in the back seat when she and her husband spotted deer near the road.

She doesn’t blame Subaru - she bought another one but she is angry that so little information about the risks from air bags was passed on to drivers.

“How could they have something come out at that speed and not alert consumers? You buy that protection and to have it do this is a real twist.”

Les Wart knew Ron Ponozzo 20 years. Neighbors, the Orofino, Idaho, men drove the same roads, in virtually the same Dodge pickup.

On Nov. 12, 1995, Wart, 51, and his cousin Gerald Lee, 55, were hauling two snowmobiles outside Elk City when they rounded a corner and saw Ponozzo’s Dodge coming right at them. Wart swerved completely over the fog line.

“I had about five seconds to do something,” said Wart, who drove 18-wheelers for 35 years. “It wasn’t enough.”

Ponozzo’s truck, estimated to be traveling 52 mph, hit Wart’s head-on.

Air bags deployed in both pickups.

“The whole world turned white,” Wart said. “It’s like you took half a dive and stuffed your head in a feather pillow. It happened so fast, I can’t say it spooked me but it was a weird feeling.”

Wart’s left thumb was almost torn off in the collision, but almost immediately, he was able to push the deflating air bag down, pull his foot from a pinned boot and slide out.

“They figure if it hadn’t been for the air bag, I’d be dead.”

His cousin, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, suffered loose teeth, a broken nose and cracked ribs.

Wart’s 1995 Dodge Ram was totaled, the camper on back damaged, as were both snow machines.

Ponozzo, 44, was not wearing a seat belt. Though his air bag also deployed, he was thrown under the dashboard. Wart was with him when he died at the scene.

Wart is 5-foot-10 and has always worn seat belts. He replaced his truck with a 1996 model, with air bags.

“I wasn’t for or against them, but I’m definitely sold now,” said the father of eight. “Life is a very, very precious thing.”

Paul and Shirley Millar were driving home from Rosauer’s in the Spokane Valley last Aug. 17 when a drunken driver careening down Bowdish hit them head-on.

“I barely touched the brakes. He was there before I had a chance to react,” said Millar, 53.

Both air bags in their 1994 Ford Taurus deployed.

“It was like getting hit smack in the face with a boxing glove,” said Millar, a controller at Garco Building Systems.

The bag deployed and deflated so fast that “my initial thought, after I regained my senses, was, ‘A lot of good that did, it’s flat,”’ Millar said.

Millar’s eyeglasses were gone, there was a burn on his right wrist and his watchband had been severed.

Next to him, his wife, Shirley, a teacher at Ponderosa Elementary, was having trouble breathing. She was taken to the hospital, treated for bruised ribs and released.

Millar is 6 feet 1 inch. His wife, 5 feet 6 inches. They didn’t give much thought to the air bags when they purchased the car. But they did when they replaced it.

“When we looked at the car and we looked at the accident, we felt it really played a big part in saving our lives,” he said.

The other driver was charged with vehicular assault. After a few weeks, Millar’s facial cuts and bruises healed.

“It’s not something you want to go through on a small fender bender; it’s not nice to get smacked in the face.

“But in a serious accident, I’d rather get smacked than get killed.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color) Graphic: Life-saving air bags


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