CHP Report: Limo Fire An Accident

by Joseph G. Lariosa

CHICAGO (FAXX/jGLi) – “We need help. Car is burning on San Mateo Bridge. Hindi ako maka-alis (I’m stuck). Narito ako sa likod (I’m here at the back). Oh, My God. Hold on. I cannot open the door!”

These were the muffled cries of one of the nine Filipino passengers, who called a 9-1-1 emergency number, while a bridal limousine was on fire last May 4, killing five Filipino nurses, on top of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in Redwood City, California.

The hysterical and frantic female caller was unable to connect to the 9-1-1 emergency phone operator, who kept saying, “hello,” “hello,” “hello.” When she was cut off from the line, it delayed a response by fire and CHP responders by a few seconds. The caller was replaced by more than a dozen callers, who were able to tell the operator the exact location of the fire.

The compact disk (CD) containing the audio of the 9-1-1 calls to the California Highway Patrol was made public during a televised press conference Monday (Aug. 19) at the CHP Redwood City Area Office at 355 Convention Way, Redwood City, California. A copy of the 15:23-minute long CD recording was sent to this reporter by Sgt. Diana McDermott, spokesperson of the Golden Gate Division of the California Highway Patrol.

At the press conference, where the 19-page press release and investigation report was distributed to the media, CHP Commander Mike Maskarich of Redwood City explained why rear doors of the 1999 Towncar limousine could not be opened.

“The left rear passenger door did have child safety mechanism latched; therefore, it would have been unable to be opened from inside of the vehicle.
The (rear) right side door was burned beyond our ability to determine if that locking mechanism (the child safety mechanism) was in effect. However, our video at the San Francisco Airport hours earlier showed that (that right, rear) door was being opened by a passenger seated from the inside in the right rear of the vehicle. There are no requirements to preclude those to be set any particular way,” Captain Maskarich said.

“It would not be uncommon to have a mechanism in a manner set that will prevent passengers seated in the left from exiting the vehicle into an approaching traffic.

“I can only imagine the psychological impact that this tragedy that left upon them that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

DRIVE SHAFT CAUSE OF HEAT THAT IGNITED THE FIRE

“No indication that failure of suspension system caused vehicle to rub into the ground as earlier reported in June. The suspension system components certainly did not adequately keep that vehicle at a level that prevented that drive shaft from coming into contact with floor pen (floorboard). The contact of the drive shaft from the floor pen was the direct cause of the heat that led to the fire in the rear passenger compartment.”

A Filipino American businessman, Manny Figueroa, of San Jose, California, who owns a private limousine, a 1997 Towncar, still believes that the driver of the ill-fated limousine, Orville Frank Brown, 46, might have been negligent for not looking at his limo’s dashboard. Figueroa said, “If there is failure of suspension system of the limousine, Brown should be able to notice a suspension failure indicator on the limousine dashboard, which would have prompted him to safely pull over and notice the fire (much earlier).” The limousine was on fire and traveled for 6.6 miles before it stopped.

Figueroa added that when Brown loaded the limousine two passengers too many, he should have called first the limousine owner, Kultar Singh, CEO of Limo Stop, Inc., if Mr. Singh would allow it so the overloading violation would be assigned to both Messrs. Brown and Kultar.

According to the investigation report, the limousine was only authorized to carry eight passengers, including the driver. The limousine had ten passengers, including the driver, during the fire.

The report also said when the air was introduced thru the partition once the front doors were opened, additional oxygen levels likely exacerbated the spread of fire. It said there were no devices or systems required by state or federal in place to break the windows to aid in emergency exit. (San Mateo) Bridge toll plaza video indicated its moon roof was closed; and the small size of the partition (9.25-inch height by 28-inch width) prevented the passengers from escaping.

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe told the media that he is supporting the thorough three-month investigation conducted by the CHP, the Foster City Fire Department headed by Chief Michael Keefe and San Mateo Coroner Robert Foucrault that “some tragedies are crimes. Some are not. This one is not. No criminal charges (will be filed). We looked for all aspects, if we could prosecute manslaughter, both vehicular and involuntary, criminal negligence and carrying nine out of seven passengers, our conclusion, elements of these crime are not there. Not present if vehicle running low to the ground for weeks on ends; photos from airport at 1 o’clock or (San Mateo Bridge) toll plaza few minutes ahead of the tragedy. Same thing with the phone, if the driver was on the phone at the time at some fashion, we explored those possibilities. No criminal charges; none of these existed. (It’s a) horrific tragedy that changed life forever. But it is not a case for criminal court that goes to that building over there. I extend our deep sympathy to the families of the victims and extend gratitude to investigation agencies for high quality work that they did.”

THE FILIPINO NURSES WHO DIED

Those who died were Neriza Fojas, the bride, who invited other victims to the bridal party; Felomina Geronga, Anna Alcantara, Jennifer Balon, and Michelle Estrera. Those who survived were Grace Guardiano, Nelia Arellano, Jasmin Deguia and Amalia Loyola, all nurses; and Orville “Ricky” Brown, the driver. Brown was not blamed for the fire.

Fire Chief Keefe said, “We are unable to determine if the cracks were present before or after the fire. The heat alone from drive shaft rubbing against floor board was the cause that ignited the carpeting material to start the fire.” The investigation report also found out that the fuel tank was intact and still contained gasoline (half tank); Catastrophic failure of the air ride suspension system; The body and floorboard made contact with the driveshaft; Friction generated heat and scarred the driveshaft; The cracked floorboard exposed the interior carpet and upholstery; It wasindeterminate  when the cracks in the floorboard were created. An air compressor supply line was found detached from a fitting. (It is unknown when this fitting failed). And the compressed rear axle bumpers did not prohibit the floor board from contacting the driveshaft.”  Foucrault determined all the five victims died of “smoke inhalation associated with fire. Tests on accelerant gasoline none was found. Death is accidental.” He condoled with the victims’ families.

Brig. Gen. (CA) Emory J. Hagan, III, of California Public Utilities Commission, said the Limo Stop will be fined $7,500 “for failure to operate safely” when it allowed “two more passengers in their compartment than their seat belts.” He said PUC “uncovered several technical errors, defects with license and general citation.” He said the “no real cause can be attributed to anything that could have been done ahead of the time to prevent” (the tragedy). Legislators are looking at fire extinguisher, safety knockout device to seat belt passenger window, emergency exit with emergency window that pops out” that could be allowed in the future to prevent repeat of the tragedy.

Reached for comment, Singh’s lawyer, Douglas A. Sears said, “Your questions to my client are totally objectionable, inflammatory and frankly, none of your business. So, in answer to your question:  Any comment? The answer is no, none. Now that the CHP investigation has been completed, civil litigation will undoubtedly soon be filed and perhaps your question will then be answered.”

(Ronnie M. Estrada of San Jose, California contributed to this report)

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PHOTO CAPTIONS AND CREDITS:

CHALLENGES OF INVESTIGATION: Capt. Mike Maskarich, California Highway Patrol Commander of Redwood City, told the media Monday (Aug. 19) that “the challenge was that this vehicle (ill-fated limousine) was manufactured and given a specified weight. When it was stolen, and those interior components were stripped, we don’t know to what extent those components were stripped and replaced and how those additional components could have changed the weight of that vehicle.” The limousine, carrying nine Filipino nurses, exploded in a fireball last May 4, claiming the lives of five of them, including the bridal celebrator, Neriza Fojas, on top of San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in Redwood City, California. No criminal charges will be brought by San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe against the limousine driver, Orville “Ricky” Brown. (FAXX/jGLi Photograb by Joseph G. Lariosa)

FOUR FATAL VICTIMS: Photo of four fatalities posted by seattlepi.com from left Michelle Estrera, Jennifer Balon, Neriza P. Fojas and Anna Alcantara before they perished in the limousine they were riding that caught fire on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge last May 4. (Photo Courtesy Of The Balon Family)

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