Bill Silverfarb/Daily Journal
Clockwise from top: Foster City Fire Chief Michael Keefe told reporters yesterday at a news conference that the cause of a fatal limousine fire on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge May 4 was accidental and could not have been foreseen. The limo was taking a bachelorette party to Foster City to celebrate the wedding of Neriza Fojas who died in the fire.
The fire that killed five women in a limousine on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in May was started by a failure of the vehicle’s suspension system and was an accident, Foster City Fire Chief Michael Keefe said at a news conference yesterday.
Friction from contact by the rear driveshaft with the floor pan ignited the carpet and foam padding inside the vehicle where nine passengers were seated on their way to a bridal shower in Foster City.
The driver, Orville Brown, could not have foreseen the accident and was not on his cellphone at the time of the May 4 tragedy, said District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.
Wagstaffe said no charges would be filed against Brown nor the company he worked for Limo Stop Incorporated.
“It was a well detailed, completely investigated event and carefully documented. Some tragedies are criminal and some are not. This one is not,” Wagstaffe said at the press conference.
If the vehicle had been running low to the ground for weeks on end, Wagstaffe said, there could have been the potential for criminal charges.
Although the limousine was only supposed to have a maximum of seven passengers inside plus the driver, there were 10 passengers in the vehicle that night. But that was not a factor in the fire, officials said.
The victims died of smoke inhalation, San Mateo Coroner Robert Foucrault said.
No inhalants such as gas were discovered during autopsies of the victims, he said.
The vehicle also still had nearly a half a tank of gas, California Highway Patrol Commander Mike Maskarich said.
The group, many of them nurses who worked at the same facility, were headed to a Foster City hotel that night from Alameda for a bachelorette party to celebrate the wedding of Neriza Fojas, 31.
Fojas and four other passengers were killed as the smoke and fire swept through the limousine. The other victims were Felomina Geronga, Anna Alcantara, Jennifer Balon and Michelle Estrera.
The CHP released some of the recordings of 911 calls made that night.
“We need help on the San Mateo Bridge,” a woman yelled at 10:07 p.m. “Oh my God, oh my God. I cannot open the door.”
A man was then heard yelling, “get out, get out, get out.”
A CHP officer calling from the scene is heard moments later telling people to calm down.
“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 to a dispatcher. “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.”
The survivors were Brown, the driver, Grace Guardiano, Nelia Arellano, Jasim de Guia and Amalia Loyola. All were interviewed as part of a fire investigation report conducted by investigator John Mapes for the Foster City Fire Department.
“Friction from the rotating driveshaft against the underside of the floorboard generated a significant temperature rise ... and ignited the material covering the passenger floor pan,” Mapes wrote in his report.
The survivors said the temperature had started to rise in the limousine and requested that the driver turn up the air conditioner.
As the fire developed, it ignited the foam padding and other materials used to fabricate the rear seat, which would have produced and released black smoke and flame into the passenger compartment, Mapes wrote in the report.
Mapes interviewed survivor Nelia Arellano while she was still a patient at Stanford Hospital following the tragedy.
She said she notified the driver that there was smoke in the rear of the vehicle but that he did not initially stop. She phoned 911 and told the driver again there was smoke in the car and that this time the driver stopped the vehicle. She was the first to escape through the driver’s side door.
“She called 911 again from outside the car. I asked her what the driver did, she said he was on the phone and did something,” according to Mapes’ report.
The doors in the back of the limo had child safety locks and may not have been opened from within, although extensive fire damage made it hard to tell, officials said.
Amalia Loyola was sitting in the rear seat where the fire started beneath. She said she saw a little black smoke at her feet and then moved to the front center seat behind the driver.
“She said then there was big smoke that filled the whole compartment. She said Nelia was trying to knock on the window to the driver to tell him about the smoke. The driver did not stop at first, when he did stop Nelia was the first one through front window, then Grace, Jasmine and them me. She said, ‘I had to push Jasmine through the window and Nelia pulled me out through the driver’s side door,” according to Mapes’ report.
The fire then got bigger and the five other girls were not moving, Loyola told Mapes.
Loyola said the driver did nothing to help, only that he was on the phone. Brown, 46, only worked for Limo Stop Inc. for about two months prior to the accident and had driven the limousine just six times.
He told Mapes, according to his report, that when he first heard “smoke” he thought the women were asking to smoke cigarettes and that it was not allowed and continued driving.
“He said he was told a second time by a passenger that there was smoke, he looked back and saw smoke in the passenger compartment. He pulled over and stopped on the highway. I asked then ‘what did you do,’ he said ‘I tried to use the cellphone but I could not get through.’ I asked ‘did you call 911,’ he said ‘I don’t know.’ I asked what he did next, he said he didn’t know, he was trying to get the phone to work,” Mapes wrote in the report.
The company will be fined $7,500 by the California Public Utilities Commission for allowing nine passengers in the vehicle when it was legally only supposed to carry seven, said Brig. Gen. Jack Hagan, director of CPUC’s safety and enforcement division.
Hagan will work with state legislators on changing regulations for limousines to require emergency pop-out windows on the vehicles, he said.
State Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, has introduced legislation requiring pop-out windows and other new regulations on the limos.
The new requirements will ensure that “future tragedies such as the one that occurred on that fateful night on the bridge can be prevented,” Corbett wrote in the statement.
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