RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - It was a cold, rainy day in December 2008. Bristol, TN, paramedic Sabrena Carrier was on her way to work when she ran off the road and hit a guardrail.
The rail's end terminal snapped off, sending the guardrail into Carrier's truck and straight through her.
"Kevin Marsh: Sullivan County TN EMS:
"318 is Sabrena's number,” said Kevin Marsh, with Sullivan County, TN EMS. He worked with Carrier, and he's also one of the men who worked to save her life.
"At the time she was talking to me, and she said that she was hurt, and I said I realize that. We're going to take great care of you because we're here."
When rescue crews rushed Carrier to the hospital, there was still a section of guardrail in her.
She died in surgery.
Guardrails are not supposed to impale cars.
Video from a crash test in Texas shows what's supposed to happen when you hit one. The end terminal slides down the rail feeding the guardrail out to the side--and away from the vehicle.
That's not what happened in Carrier's case, nor to Jay Traylor, who lost both his legs after falling asleep at the wheel and veering off I-40 near Raleigh.
“I could see where the leg was severed but not the other part of it," he said. "I woke up with the guard rail coming through the floor panel, between the gas and the brake pedal.”
Doctors told Amy Vitelli in Ohio she was millimeters from death after she lost control and a guardrail impaled her SUV. She had a broken leg, arm, ribs and internal injuries. “I talked to my doctor and I said, you know, I was in a pretty bad accident. I would have broken my leg anyway right? She said all of your damage was from the guardrail coming through the car,” Vitelli said.
The guardrails in question are called ET Plus. They're made by Trinity Industries out of Texas. According to whistleblower Josh Harman, they have been linked to numerous accidents across the country.
“I know that the fatalities are happening. I know they are in the hundreds per year,” Harman said. He's from Virginia and won a federal whistleblower suit against Trinity. A federal jury agreed with him that Trinity Industries defrauded the government by never telling them about changes the company made to its guard rail heads in 2005.
This is the most obvious change: the beams went from the 5-inch design to an unapproved 4-inch design -- a change Harman contends significantly weakens the device.
"There was no question what was happening -- a total misrepresentation. A farce that resulted in people's lives lost and limbs lost lives shattered, families destroyed,” he said.
Trinity has long defended the guardrail design and denied any wrongdoing in the court case.
The debate over guardrails is far from over. In fact, whether they are safe or not is now an even murkier area. The federal government recently announced these devices held up in eight crash tests.
It wasn't hard for us to find the guardrails in question. Over several days, we stopped at different locations in the area and found Trinity ET-Plus end treatments in Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover. We found them on Midlothian, Interstates 295 and 95, Powhite Parkway and even Broad Street.
The Virginia Department of Transportation says it hasn't taken inventory yet, but knows there are thousands of potential Trinity ET Plus guardrail end treatments out there.
"It's not approved for use in Virginia," said VDOT spokesman Marshall Herman. The agency approved the use of the ET Plus back in 2000, but only recently found out that in 2005 Trinity changed the design.
"We were not aware of those modifications until 2013. Those modifications were extensive enough that we look at it as different product," Herman said.
A federal jury has already weighed in, agreeing with Virginia whistleblower Josh Harman that Trinity defrauded the government when in it secretly changed the design to save money. Harman noticed a pattern of accidents, vehicles and even people being impaled, drivers maimed and even killed.
"Fraud was committed. It was committed on the American public," Harman said.
Virginia has stopped installing new ET Plus guardrail end treatments and filed the first state lawsuit against the manufacturer. The Commonwealth accused Trinity Industries of fraud for putting thousands of, "unapproved, improperly tested, and potentially dangerous pieces of highway guardrail equipment" on Virginia's roads. That's what Attorney General Mark Herring wrote in a press release about the lawsuit.
But here's where the issue gets even murkier.
The Federal Highway Administration just tested out the new ET Plus designs, completing eight crash tests in late 2014.
Safety experts are zeroing in on the eighth test, in which the test vehicle speeds towards a Trinity ET Plus guardrail at 62 miles per hour. On impact, the guardrail crumples and, bends, appearing to penetrate the driver side door.
Despite these violent images, the Federal Highway Administration said this crash test passed safety standards. In fact, it says the Trinity guardrails held up in all eight tests.
Sean Kane, a vehicle safety advocate, says the government got it wrong. "The guardrail failed. It clearly failed. It locked up, flipped to the side, and penetrated into the side of the car. That is a failure by any measure," he said.
Kane says he believes the driver in this crash would likely have suffered a serious leg injury. Kane, who works with plaintiffs attorney's suing Trinity Industries, fired off a letter to the Federal Highway Administration accusing the agency of "risking the safety of the public" by passing the ET Plus.
The FHA called the suggestion the agency is protecting Trinity "ludicrous," saying testing was done at an independent facility and reviewed by an outside expert who also gave the ET Plus a passing grade. In a statement, Trinity called their guardrail "a robust end terminal system that performs as designed," one that "...has been successfully crash tested more times than any product of its kind."
Still, critics aren't quieted and Virginia's lawsuit is still moving forward.
VDOT has a plan in place that could pull all the guardrail ends off the roads, but hasn't made a final decision about whether to enact it.
"We're going through everything with a fine-tooth comb just to make sure because public safety is of the up most important to this agency. And we want to make sure that we have a safe product out on the roadways," said Herman.
Kane says all of the recent revelations leave states in a difficult place.
"On one hand you've got the Federal Highway Administration saying it's all good here folks, don't believe your eyes, this really isn't a failure, and we're not really going to pay attention to those deaths and injuries. And on the other hand you've got the states who now have this liability on their hands. That's expensive, and they've got to figure out what to do about that," said Kane.
Trinity Industries defends its product and says there are many factors that can affect a guardrail's performance, including size and speed of the vehicle, road conditions and the angle at which it strikes the guardrail.