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Defective dishwasher blamed in fatal fire

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Investigators have found the cause of a fire that killed 78-year-old Mary Lee in her Pleasant Hill home this summer: a Whirlpool dishwasher that was the subject of a 1996 recall for faulty wiring.

Lee, who died July 13 in a late-night fire, apparently never got the recall notice, her son, Rick Lindstrom of Castro Valley, said Friday. She "had every scrap of paper on every appliance she had purchased'' since moving into her home in 1973 stored a steel file-drawer -- but there is nothing about a recall, Lindstrom said.

As a result of her death and another fire last month in Antioch, fire officials in Contra Costa County and Berkeley have issued advisories urging people to stop using the recalled machines and to contact Whirlpool or Sears, which sells Whirlpool machines under the Kenmore brand.

Lee's dishwasher was one of 500,000 made by Whirlpool between June 1991 and October 1992 that were the subject of the recall, said Contra Costa County Fire Protection District Marshal Richard Carpenter.

About half of the machines were sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co. for prices ranging from $350 to $475, according to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which says faulty wiring in the door latches may cause handles to overheat and catch fire.

Lee bought her dishwasher at Circuit City in Concord, according to her son.

The commission was investigating both Contra Costa fires, said Frank Nava, the agency's western regional director in Oakland.

"Who knows how many more of those time bombs are out there ticking in people's kitchens,'' said Lindstrom, who contacted an attorney and was planning to file a lawsuit against various companies, including Whirlpool.

Efforts Friday to get comment from Whirlpool Corp. of Benton Harbor, Mich. , were unsuccessful.

Larry Costello, a spokesman for Sears, said the company had sent letters to customers with names in their database in 1996. "We take recall situations very seriously," he said.

Kim MacDonald of Antioch said she also had not received any notice about her dishwasher, which fire officials say was also made during the 1991-92 recall period. The machine burst into flames Aug. 14 while she was at home with her 2-year-old son, she said.

"We could have been killed,'' said MacDonald, 36, adding that it was a fluke she was not taking a nap with her son at the time.

MacDonald was washing a load of dishes when she turned a corner and saw flames leaping from the machine in her kitchen, she said. After trying to douse the fire with a hose, she was overcome by noxious fumes and fled with her son outside, where she collapsed on the grass.

"To be burned alive -- that's my greatest fear, and it almost happened, '' she said.

MacDonald bought her Kenmore dishwasher in 1993 at Sears in Antioch, she said. MacDonald said she had lived at the same address from the time she bought the machine until 1998 and never received a notice.

MacDonald said she had learned about the recall only days after the fire when an investigator called and asked for identifying information from the machine.

When Whirlpool recalled the machines in 1996, there were about 20 claims of property damage and no reports of injuries, the commission said. Whirlpool has said since that it fixed the problem in machines manufactured after the recall period.

But Karen Eager, an attorney in Kansas City, said that Whirlpool dishwashers made since 1992 had been linked to numerous fires and at least two deaths.

"We don't believe they fixed the problem, and this is evidenced by the fact that there are still fires,'' Eager said.

Eager is representing a Louisburg, Kan., couple whose adult daughter died in a house fire they blame on a Whirlpool dishwasher purchased in 1996.

That lawsuit went to trial in federal court and ended with a hung jury last year, with seven of eight jurors finding Whirlpool at fault, Eager said. Jury verdicts must be unanimous in federal civil trials. A retrial is pending.

Whirlpool settled a case involving a fatality that occurred in New York City, Eager said. In another case, a jury in New Mexico ruled Whirlpool's favor after a jury hung in earlier trial.

DISHWASHER RECALL

Affected Whirlpool brand dishwashers have model numbers beginning with DU8, DP8, DU9 and GDP. Affected Kenmore dishwashers have model numbers beginning with 665. In addition to model numbers, Whirlpool and Kenmore have serial numbers ranging from FA2400000 through FA5299999 or from FB0100000 through FB1899999. Model and serial numbers can be found on a plate on the right front edge of the tub, inside the dishwasher door.

For Whirlpool, call (800) 874-9481.Those who bought machines at Sears, Roebuck and Co. should call (800) 927-1625. Service calls and repairs will be made at no cost to consumers.

From San Fransisco Chronicle

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