Car Trouble: BMW Fields Questions About Turton’s Death

By Rend Smith - City Desk
|  Monday, Jan 24, 2011  |  Updated 8:30 AM EDT
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So far, no one's quite sure why lobbyist Ashely Turton's car burst into flames on Jan. 10, killing her. Metropolitan Police Department officials tell us the death of the 37-year-old is still under investigation, and an Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruling on cause and manner of death is still pending. But Turton's body suffered burns, so the fire that erupted along or inside her 2008 BMW X5 sport-utility vehicle was obviously a factor.

In trying to figure out what happened to Turton—a mother of three, and the wife of Obama administration liaison to Capitol Hill, Daniel A. Turton—police and fire investigators have theorized there was an accident. The theory is that while heading from her home in the 800 block of A Street SE to work at around 5 a.m., Turton was in a low-speed crash. Colliding with her garage, Turton may have ignited something flammable stored there. The vehicle then ignited.

But some think the fire might be due to a mechanical failure. BMW North America spokesperson Thomas Plucinsky is aware of the possibility. He says BMW has been contacted by investigators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about Turton's car. Plucinsky, who says the company is "shocked and saddened by the death of Ashley Turton," also says BMW has been "cooperating" with the investigators as they probe the tragedy. But though authorities have been asking for things like the warranty records for Turton's vehicle, Plucinsky says "there's no indication it's the cause of the fire."

Message boards indicate X5s have caught fire before, though. "I pulled into the garage (inside a 170 unit condo building!), turned off the ignition, went inside, and within 15 minutes there are 8 fire trucks outside, and my X5 was engulfed in flames," one user posts in a forum. "My insurance company and some independent company took the car apart and concluded that the accessory fan overheated and caught fire." The forum has about 40 similar accounts.

Plucinsky says that problem sounds familiar, but that it's a thing of the past. The 2001 X5 had an electrical problem that could cause a vehicle to overheat and catch fire like that. But he says the problem was corrected through a recall, and none of the other models since have been fire hazards. "We have no reports of 2008 X5s catching fire," he states.

According to the NHTSA database, at least, Plucinsky is right. Of the 22 complaints submitted to the government office about the 2008 X5, none involve fire. But those are official reports.

One message board poster, Hope Pessis, of Marina del Rey, Calif., tells City Desk her 2002 X5 caught fire in 2006, and that she knows of other, similar blazes. "I have received e-mails from all over the world from people who's[sic] BMWX5 went up in flames in the same manner as mine," she says.

Asked about Pessis' 2002 going up in smoke, Plucinsky changes his story a little. He says it's possible that even though it wasn't a 2001, Pessis' vehicle was of  the same "generation" as that model, a design produced until 2007. He claims the car Turton drove, on the other hand, was of the later generation.

There are websites that claim BMW fires are a longstanding problem the company has ignored. If investigators link Turton's death to mechanical problems with the car, BMW can expect some fallout. It's still early in the investigation, though, and BMW seems earnestly concerned about the fire. It was clear that Plucinsky has been following Turton's story closely.

Photo by jeffwilcox via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 Generic

Car Trouble: BMW Fields Questions About Turton’s Death was originally published by Washington City Paper on Jan 20, 2011

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