Tuesday, August 20, 2013
REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (AP) — Some screamed. Some cried. Some soberly described what they saw. Few could believe it. A limousine sat on a San Francisco Bay Area bridge, engulfed in flames, with people still inside.
Recordings of the 911 calls released Monday captured witnesses, including some who had just escaped the limo, recounting the last moments of the five nurses who died inside, as authorities said a mechanical problem was behind the fire that killed them and no crime was committed.
One call was from a woman who said she was a passenger and there were people burning inside the limo as a dispatcher, struggling to understand her, tried to get her to stop screaming.
"Oh, my god! Oh, my god!" an unidentified woman can be heard saying in one call.
"Get out! Get out!" a man can be heard saying in another.
A rescuer sounds almost resigned as he tells an operator that he didn't know how the people inside could be saved.
"The rear of the limo is fully engulfed, and the doors are locked," the man says. "I don't think there is anything we can do."
Investigators said one of the rear doors had the child lock engaged, preventing it from being opened from the inside. The limo was too burned for investigators to determine if the lock was engaged on the other side.
The May 4 fire broke out on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge while nurse Neriza Fojas, one of the five killed, was celebrating her recent wedding with a group of friends. Four other friends inside the limo, and the driver, survived.
A catastrophic failure of the rear suspension system was the cause of the fire, California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Maskarich said at a news conference Monday. The air suspension failure allowed the spinning driveshaft to contact the floor pan, causing friction that ignited carpets and set the 1999 Lincoln Town Car on fire, according to the CHP's report on the incident.
The findings meant no criminal charges would be filed.
"Some tragedies are crimes and some are not, and this one is not," San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said at the news conference.
The California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates limousines in the state, was fining the operator $1,500 for having nine passengers in the limo that was only authorized to hold eight.
In interviews with investigators, the survivors described a harrowing escape.
Amalia Loyola, speaking from the hospital hours after the fire, said she had to push one friend through the window as another friend pulled her out the driver's door, according to the investigation report.
"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.
Loyola would be the last one out.
"We all waited for other people to get out, but no one did," said another survivor, Jasmin Deguia, according to the report.
The limo's driver, Orville Brown, 46, of San Jose, told investigators that at first he misunderstood one of the passengers when she knocked on the partition window.
"I thought she was asking if she could smoke," Brown said in interview transcripts.
He said seconds later, the women knocked again, this time screaming, "Smoke, smoke!" and "Pull over."
Brown said he got out and "tried to call 911, but it was busy."
Another passenger, Grace 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 investigation found that 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 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 contributed.
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.
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.
Associates Press writer Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles contributed to this report.