The cell reception at her West Chester home had been spotty. So after watching her three oldest children get onto the school bus at the end of her driveway, Jackie Collas dialed Verizon and asked about boosting the signal. It had been a harsh winter, and she worried about being able to reach 911 in an emergency.
After hanging up on that morning last February, she went to check on Curren, her 2-year-old.
She found him trapped and motionless beneath his overturned, five-drawer dresser. For how long, Collas couldn’t know. The mother began CPR, and was still trying to revive him when the paramedics arrived.
It was not until after the funeral that she learned Curren had no vital signs when they took over, that there had been no way to save him. That has left her with one heartbreaking regret.
Sitting beside his bed, the unwashed sheets still full with his smell, she wishes she had stopped lifesaving efforts that day, taken him in her arms, and rocked him one last time.
“I would have held him a little longer,” she says. “While he was warm.”
What happened with that toppled dresser is called a tip-over, a name that marks the very second when a commonplace, unthreatening item becomes lethal.
A television or dresser or bookcase, disturbed in some way, leans off balance, past its center of gravity and ... tips.
About four times an hour, on average — 38,000 times a year — the scenario sends someone in the United States to an emergency room. More than half are children, many under 5 years old and brimming with a curiosity to clasp a TV or climb drawers like stairs.
In 2011, the last year for which reliable data are available, tip-overs killed 49 children nationwide — 21 more than the year before, hospital data gathered by the Consumer Product Safety Commission show.
Sometimes these accidents are loud, with shattering glass and splintering wood. Others are dreadfully quiet because the child’s body muffles the impact.
In the aftermath, parents say their guilt can be immediate — perhaps one reason so few deaths lead to lawsuits. But some say their regrets aren’t from having ignored a warning. They had never heard of tip-overs until one killed their child.
- TVs, alone or with furniture
- Incomplete data
Experts say it’s unclear why deaths are rising, but many believe consumers buying flatscreen televisions are putting their old, bulky sets on furniture never intended to carry the weight.
Manufacturers have worked to curb the danger with voluntary standards they help craft — while balancing safety, product efficiency, and corporate profits. The process can be arduous. For instance, a change to an industry stability standard that makes it harder for some dressers to topple was delayed a year and a half, in part because one company objected, according to several people involved in the process.
Experts say tip-overs are almost entirely preventable, with more awareness, regulation, innovation, and commitment from manufacturers.
“We can build TVs that won’t tip over. We can build bookshelves that won’t tip over. We can do a lot more than we’re doing,” says Gary Smith, director of the injury research and policy center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “But we don’t have the political will to do it. And there isn’t the public outrage.”
Soon after he and his wife bought their Huntingdon Valley home in 2005, Bob Lambert set out to freshen the bedroom they chose for their 3-year-old daughter, Katie. He shimmied two tall wardrobes left by the last owner from the wall and coated the space in a soft blush paint.
The pink bedroom.
That’s what they would call it in the police report.
On Jan. 21, 2005, workers laid carpet and pushed the wardrobes back, resting them on the new tack strip that lined the perimeter of the room beneath the carpet. It ever so slightly tilted the units forward.
As Katie played, her mother heard the crash of a 200-pound wardrobe falling onto her daughter.
Within months of Katie’s death, the parents formed a nonprofit. They spoke to then-Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, who twice introduced bills in Katie’s name that would have required many manufacturers to provide tip restraints with products. In 2007, they sued IKEA.
They said the wardrobe was prone to tip, with doors that were each three times heavier than the back panel. The unit came with metal brackets to attach it to the wall, which the previous homeowner had not used, but they were “woefully inadequate” to correct the imbalance, the suit alleged.
The Lamberts’ lawyer argued IKEA had known of the danger of tip-overs without recalling unsafe products.
IKEA, which has its U.S. headquarters in Conshohocken, countered, saying the product had safety features that had been ignored. The Lamberts’ case was the only known one of the since-discontinued item tipping, the lawyers said.
Then, in mid-2008, both sides stopped fighting.
IKEA agreed to settle for $2.3 million, according to court documents filed in Philadelphia.
The figure was reached in part through questions that hang raw and unanswered about how Katie’s life would have been lived. But there was another agonizing question about how she died.
Did she suffer?
The police concluded Katie had likely died on impact. An expert hired by the Lamberts looked one moment earlier, plotting from when the wardrobe tipped to when it hit her.
If she was standing, 0.67 seconds.
If she was sitting, 0.74 seconds.
If she was lying, 0.82 seconds.
“It is also my opinion,” their expert wrote, “that, for a brief instant, Katie Lambert experienced a consuming terror and dread and likely physical pain as this large wardrobe item collapsed upon and enveloped her.”
Some companies embraced tip restraints early. IKEA began developing them in 1993 and now includes them with all clothing storage units. A common kind tethers furniture to walls with a strap.
Including restraints with products became part of the furniture industry’s voluntary stability standard in 2009. That test requires that a unit won’t tip when a drawer is extended and 50 pounds, simulating the weight of a child, is added.
It’s one of 12,000 standards under the purview of ASTM International, a Conshohocken nonprofit that gathers stakeholders to create guidelines for everything from the makings of a moonbounce to what constitutes a 600-thread-count sheet. Anyone can take part: manufacturers, consumer advocates, parents. Compliance with most standards is voluntary. But thousands of products are still tested; many retailers won’t carry items unless they comply.
Regulation through mandatory standards has waned. In 1981, as the Reagan administration slashed the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s budget and staff, Congress limited the agency’s ability to mandate standards. It can still do so, but that often comes after years of gauging the effectiveness of a voluntary standard, a point the agency says it hasn’t met with tip-overs.
While some worry voluntary standards favor manufacturers, they can improve safety.
In the early 1990s, for example, freestanding infant walkers were causing nearly 23,000 injuries per year, most from children falling down stairs. Prevention focused largely on urging parents to close the basement door or use gates. Then in the mid-1990s, manufacturers made stationary activity centers as an alternative and the ASTM standard was updated to require the walker be wider than the average doorway or the feet to lock if one moved over a ledge.
The result: From 1994 to 2001, injuries dropped 78 percent.
“We designed the problem out of existence,” Smith says.
The hum of a power saw cuts above country music down the hall, where workers are laying a light, laminate floor. Heather Poole wanted the beige carpet gone before the baby, her second, was born.
“I couldn’t hear if something fell again,” she says, sitting in the cozy, pink nursery of her El Mirage, Ariz., ranch.
There was carpet in her son Brayden’s room on Dec. 31, 2011, when the 3-year-old was put to bed with his favorite movie, Cars, playing on the large television perched atop his bureau.
Poole, 28, can’t know what happened. But she knows Brayden was independent, like her. She says he probably pulled on the dresser trying to restart the movie. As the TV fell, her boyfriend heard nothing from the living room. The mother found her son’s body when she returned from work.
After, she tried counseling but stopped. She’s not sure others understand her pain, or the anger she feels when her warnings are met with excuses.
“There’s the people who tell you they can’t afford to put a hole in their wall. And I want to punch them in the face,” Poole says. “I’m just like, You can’t afford to put a hole in your wall? That’s a good excuse.”
On Facebook, she posts news stories telling of injuries and deaths and adds a short prayer. RIP little one.
She fantasizes about buying the televisions at Goodwill and tossing them. Instead, she walks the thrift shop’s aisles and nestles a card with Brayden’s picture and her website into the corner of each screen.
There is an ongoing debate within the industries most affected by tip-overs on whether manufacturers could do more to prevent injuries.
At his Senate confirmation hearing last April, Joe Mohorovic, one of four commissioners at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said some television manufacturers seem blind to the hazard and “thwart the efforts of a diligent parent endeavoring to create a safe environment for children.” His frustrations, he later explained in an interview, came from trying to secure his TV with a strap but getting little help when he asked the manufacturer how to do so.
Others believe the industry’s voluntary stability standard, drafted by Underwriters Laboratories, an Illinois company similar to ASTM, should be revisited. It hasn’t been updated markedly since 2004 and doesn’t require TVs to be sold with safety devices. John Drengenberg, consumer safety director for Underwriters Laboratories, says that isn’t feasible because manufacturers can’t plan for all the wall types found in homes.
In a report released last week, the Consumer Product Safety Commission says both flatscreens and CRT TVs pose a serious threat but found in some cases older TVs have the potential to strike a child with a force six times greater than a flatscreen the same size. The problem of those dangerous CRT TVs being placed on unstable furniture won’t go away through a change in the standard, Drengenberg says.
“The one hope that we can have is that the older TVs will disappear and malfunction,” he says. “And then we’d be back to not having those things on rickety shelves.”
The ASTM standard, which covers dressers and similar pieces of furniture, does require that units come with safety devices. Some on the organization’s furniture safety committee, though, stress furniture should be as stable as possible without those tip restraints because consumers might not attach them.
In early 2013, the group approved a change many believed would do just that, making it harder for a unit to topple by clarifying for dresser-makers how far a drawer had to be pulled out before adding the 50-pound weight. The change didn’t become official until October. Several members say that’s in part because Ashley Furniture, the world’s largest home furniture manufacturer, filed an appeal contending the group didn’t follow proper procedure to enact the change.
“They are using any tactics they can because they’re really, really against it,” says Rachel Weintraub, an ASTM member and the legislative director at the Consumer Federation of America.
“You look at [Ashley’s appeal] and you say: Really?” says Gary Bell, an ASTM member and consultant with decades of experience in product safety and liability. “You can’t have it your way, so you’re looking for little things that are going to sidetrack the issue here?”
Ashley Furniture representatives say the company was not stonewalling the change in the standard but was trying to clarify what it feared were ambiguities that might confuse some furniture-makers or lead them to ignore the voluntary guidance.
The employees spoke with The Inquirer in a conference call but, citing company policy, declined to be identified by name. They say Ashley has included restraints with its furniture since 2007 and, through its role with the standards association, has been an industry leader in improving product safety.
“The easiest position to be in within the furniture industry is a quiet nonparticipant,” says one Ashley official. “We’re very proud that our participation is heard and that our participation is felt and that some of our participation is documented.”
Bill Perdue, head of regulatory affairs for the American Home Furnishings Alliance and the ASTM committee chairman, says the standard in place during the delay was already “aggressive.”
That’s beside the point to Nancy Cowles, an ASTM member and head of the Chicago nonprofit Kids in Danger. She says people bought furniture that could have been safer, and furniture “stays around for a long time.”
“We will be seeing injuries from this delay happening years from now or decades from now,” she says.
It’s only the latest time the committee has been hung up on a proposed change. When the group considered adding the tip restraint, a handful of manufacturers objected, says Tom Lowery, a former Ethan Allen executive who was chairman of the committee at the time.
He says they were worried about the cost — roughly $1 per unit.
Every day Vitaliy and Marina Buzadzhi are reminded of what they lost. Each moment their son Jacob has missed is visible through his twin, Isaac.
On Nov. 28, 2007, the mother left the 11-month-old boys in their Tulsa, Okla., bedroom. When she returned from the bathroom, the dresser was crushing Jacob.
A few feet away, Isaac played quietly on the floor.
For weeks after, Isaac would look for the brother who had been like his shadow until slowly he forgot his twin had existed. Seven years later, the memory of Isaac searching for his brother still overwhelms the 33-year-old Vitaliy Buzadzhi.
“He was going through some kind of pain or sadness on his own,” he says.
The parents told him about Jacob when he was older.
The two bought the dresser, a four-drawer model made by the California company Million Dollar Baby, at a department store. Three years after it fell on Jacob, the same model tipped onto and killed a 1-year-old California girl. The families filed lawsuits, and Million Dollar Baby settled both, paying an undisclosed amount to the Buzadzhis and $1 million to the other parents, according to their lawyers.
- Under age 18
- 18 to 59
- 60 and older
- Under age 18
- 18 to 59
- 60 and older
In 2013, Million Dollar Baby recalled 18,000 dressers. The company did not respond to repeated inquiries seeking comment.
The Buzadzhis’ attorney, Michael Carr, says he has spoken with two other families who lost a child in a tip-over. Reliving it was difficult, and they decided against filing suit, he says. Others, he believes, won’t ever consider it.
“They’re not thinking about a manufacturer in China being responsible,” he says. “They’re thinking about what they didn’t do.”
Smith, the Ohio doctor, says many are stuck shifting blame rather than finding common ground on tip-overs. He sees it as part of a wider problem in how society addresses injuries: as less worthy of resources than other public-health crises. If meningitis were killing dozens of children a year, there would be outrage and coordinated action, he says.
Educational efforts are being made. On Saturday, the Consumer Electronics Association and Safe Kids Worldwide held National TV Safety Day, using the Super Bowl, a day when families gather around their televisions, to remind of the danger those sets present. In coming months, the Consumer Product Safety Commission will roll out a $400,000 TV, print, and radio campaign called Anchor It, aimed at raising awareness and unifying parents, foundations, nonprofits, and companies engaged in tip-over prevention.
Safety advocates say raising awareness is essential but only part of the equation. Other ideas are bubbling.
Congress could require manufacturers to include tip restraints, as Allyson Schwartz tried with the unsuccessful bills named after Katie Lambert. There could be mandatory standards. Or voluntary ones rooted in more lifelike situations, such as a child pulling out several dresser drawers rather than one.
Retailers could hold buyback programs to get old TVs out of homes faster. Hotel chains could commit to anchoring TVs, and day-care centers could be required to do the same.
More stores could stock tip restraints on shelves, not just online as many do now. Employees could be trained to tell customers about the deadly potential.
Those with a platform — doctors, manufacturers, public agencies, and others — could use it to make tip restraints as commonplace as seat belts and smoke detectors.
“It’s a matter of having the will to make this a priority,” Smith says. “And if we do that, if we make this a priority, we will see the injuries go down. There’s no doubt about it.”
Jackie Collas says she and her husband, Jake, had never heard of a tip-over before their IKEA dresser fell on Curren. The 31-year-old mother says the company knew about the threat and could have made the product, part of its MALM line, safer.
An IKEA spokeswoman says that its products are rigorously tested but that MALM dressers, if not secured as the instructions direct, can become unstable. She says two children have died from a falling MALM dresser, in both cases when restraints appear to have not been used. The company says it is investigating Curren’s death.
Collas hopes it issues a recall and every day feels the burden to warn others of what she missed. Her awareness of how quickly a child can be taken is still unsettling, bringing fears she will lose another of her own. That worry has only grown since October, when she got the unexpected news she is pregnant.
“I want to think I had my turn, this tragedy happened, and now everything will be fine,” she says. “But I can’t say that.”
She wonders how she will take Curren’s name down from the wall above his bed, still holding to his lingering touches on her home. The toy Cadillac with cherry bucket seats he tucked in the entryway baseboard heater. The turkey sandwich in the freezer he helped her husband make for his lunch the night before he died. The voice mail.
It was left July 5, 2013, at 4:51 p.m. She had forgotten about it until a quiet morning in November when she was deleting old messages. Curren’s voice came through the speaker.
“Mommy, mom, mama, mama, mama, mom.”
“Say I love you,” Jake tells him, but he babbles only soft gibberish over the chimes of a toy.
“Say bye-bye,” Jake says.