REDWOOD CITY (CBS/AP/BCN) — A mechanical problem ignited a limousine fire that killed five nurses trapped in the back, the California Highway Patrol said Monday as it released results of its investigation and more than a dozen 911 call recordings filled with screams from those inside.
The blaze broke out on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge on May 4 because of a catastrophic failure of the rear suspension system, CHP Capt. Mike Maskarich said. The air suspension failure allowed the spinning driveshaft to contact the floor pan, causing friction that ignited carpets and set the vehicle on fire, authorities said.
No criminal charges will be filed due to the accidental nature of the fire, prosecutors said.
“Some tragedies are crimes and some are not, and this one was not,” San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said at a joint news conference with the CHP. Added Maskarich: “The overall nature of this tragedy was not something that was foreseeable.”
Wagstaffe said his office looked into manslaughter, criminal negligence or other possible charges before determining that no charges would be filed against the driver or TownCar SF, the company that owned and operated the limo.
The California Public Utilities Commission, however, is fining the limo operator $7,500 for having more passengers than allowed in the vehicle, said Jack Hagan, director of the CPUC’s safety and enforcement division.
The fire broke out while a nurse, 31-year-old Neriza Fojas of Monterey, was celebrating her recent wedding with a group of friends. The party was traveling across the bridge from Alameda to the Crown Plaza hotel in Foster City.
Fojas was among the five killed, the others were Jennifer Balon, 39, of Dublin; Anna Alcantara, 46, of San Lorenzo; Michelle Estrera, 35, of Fresno; and Felomina Geronga, 43, of Alameda. Four other friends inside the limo – Amalia Loyola, 48, of San Leandro; Mary Guardiano, 42, of Alameda; Jasmin Deguia, 34, of San Jose and Nelia Arellano, 36, of Oakland – survived the fire. The limo driver, 46-year-old Orville Brown of San Jose, also survived.
Eight of the nine women in the limo were current or former employees at the Fruitvale Health Care Center in Oakland.
San Mateo Coroner Robert Foucrault said all five deaths were the result of smoke inhalation and were ruled accidental.
Recordings of 911 calls released Monday include a woman’s voice shouting, “We need help on the San Mateo Bridge! Oh my God, oh my God. I cannot open the door!” and a man’s voice yelling “Get out! Get out!” There also were cries and screams from callers and passengers.
“It’s a limousine that’s fully engulfed, and there are people trapped inside,” one caller said.
A woman who said she was a passenger screamed as she told the dispatcher there were people inside the burning limo.
Moments later, a CHP officer calling from the scene is heard ordering people to calm down, then telling the dispatcher, “There’s people telling me there’s five more people trapped inside.”
“I don’t think there is anything we can do,” the officer said. “The rear of the limo is fully engulfed, and the doors are locked… I’ve got one, two, three, four, five ladies sitting on the ground.”
Investigators said one of the rear doors had the child lock engaged, and the other side of the limo was too burned for them to tell.
One caller broke into tears as he described the scene to an operator who reassured him that help was coming.
In a report written by the Foster City Fire Department, Brad Monnet, a passing driver who stopped with his wife after seeing the burning limo, stated that he got out and tried to open a passenger door to the limo “but flames came out and he shut the door.”
In interviews with investigators, the survivors described a harrowing escape.
Loyola told investigators the bridal shower group had just opened a bottle of Champagne when she felt the vehicle hit a bump, then saw black smoke coming from beneath her feet
Loyola, seated in the rear of the passenger compartment, told everyone about the smoke and moved up past the bride-to-be’s presents to the front of the limo to join three other passengers.
She then immediately saw flames burst out in the rear next where the other five women sat.
“Nobody followed me after,” Loyola said of the five women. “They were just sitting there. I don’t know if they passed out or what. But the thing is nobody followed me. I was the only one that moved. They were just sitting there.”
“I had to push Jasmin (Deguia) through the window, and Nelia (Arellano) pulled me out through the driver’s side door,” Loyola told investigators during an interview at the hospital hours after the fire, according to the investigation report.
Deguia said she was the third one out.
“When I was getting out of the limousine, the partition was so small my hips got stuck between the partition and the small ledge. I was hanging out headfirst,” she said.
Guardiano had also saved herself after squeezing through the burning limo’s narrow privacy partition and then she ran over and opened both rear doors to try and free the others trapped inside. But “flames shot out of the doorway and she was unable to go inside to grab anyone,” reported a CHP officer who took her statement.
“She said she stepped back and the doors shut automatically. She said the (limo) driver just stood with his cellphone.”
Loyola was the last one out.
“We all waited for other people to get out, but no one did,” said Deguia.
Authorities reviewed video and photos of the fire and interviewed survivors, including the limo driver.
Brown said at first, with the music in the limo turned up, he misunderstood what one of the passengers in the back of the 1999 Lincoln Town Car was saying when she knocked on the partition window.
“I thought she was asking if she could smoke,” Brown said in an interview transcript released Monday.
He said seconds later, the women knocked again, this time screaming, “Smoke, smoke!” and “Pull over.”
Brown said he put on the brakes, got out and “tried to call 911, but it was busy.” But Guardiano said the driver was “standing out there on his phone,” after stopping the limo.
“He did not open the doors,” Guardiano said. “I went out through the partition and called 911 from outside.”
Brown said he helped the four survivors escape through the partition. One of the women ran around to a rear passenger door but by then the vehicle was engulfed in flames.
The state Public Utilities Commission had authorized the vehicle to carry eight or fewer passengers – including the driver, but it had nine on the night of the fire. In addition, TownCar SF had carried 10 passengers in the limo at least five times since 2011, the CHP reported.
Aerial video from Chopper 5 shot after the incident showed about a third of the back half of the limousine scorched by the fire. Its taillights and bumper were gone and it appeared to be resting on its rims, but the remainder of the vehicle didn’t appear to be damaged.
The investigation found that the limousine appeared to heat up and catch fire as the driver drove it over an upward grade section of the bridge in the far right lane headed west at about 55 mph. The suspension and axle travel stops for the differential failed, allowing the spinning driveshaft to rub directly underneath the floor panel. “The heat and possibly sparks, generated from the friction … ignited the materials covering the floorboard,” the report said.
Those materials were the carpet in the backseat.
The report doesn’t pinpoint why the air suspension failed, but it said those failures “occur with some frequency, due to the normal wear and aging of the various components.”
The probe found no indication that an electrical failure or gas from the fuel system caused or contributed to the fire.
While the chain of events that led to the accident may be unusual, some vehicle safety advocates were troubled that a fire not fed by gasoline could engulf the vehicle.
“Not many vehicles would have that type of failure, nonetheless the overriding question is why does a limousine have so many flammable materials in it? That’s what concerns me as a safety advocate,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group.
Investigators said they learned that the limo, a Ford Lincoln produced in 1998 that had more than 200,000 miles on it at the time of the fire, had been reported stolen on Sept. 9, 2004, and found days later stripped of parts.
The vehicle was later repaired in Southern California for about $14,000 by a now-closed business but it was not clear how much of it had been refurbished compared to its original state, the CHP reported.
Fatal accidents involving limousines are rare. From 2002 through 2011, 31 limousine passengers or drivers died in 21 crashes, according to data kept by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Only three of those deaths were related to a fire, all in 2003.
Hagan said he would work with state legislators on changing regulations for passenger limousines to require emergency pop-out windows on the vehicles.
State Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-East Bay, has introduced legislation requiring the pop-out windows and other new regulations concerning the limos.
Corbett said in a statement that the new requirements would ensure that “tragedies such as the one that occurred on that fateful night on the bridge can be prevented.”
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