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Bay Area limousine fire that killed 5 was accidental, officials say

No criminal charges will be filed in limo fire that killed five women en route to a bridal party, law enforcement officials say.

August 19, 2013|By Maria L. La Ganga
  • San Mateo County firefighters and California Highway Patrol personnel investigate the limousine fire on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in early May. Law enforcement officials say that the blaze, which killed five women en route to a bridal party, was "accidental in nature" and that no criminal charges will be filed.
San Mateo County firefighters and California Highway Patrol personnel… (Jane Tyska, Associated…)

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — A limousine fire that claimed the lives of five women en route to a bridal party in early May was "accidental in nature" and no criminal charges will be filed, law enforcement officials said Monday at the end of a three-month investigation.

The car was carrying two more passengers than was legal, officials said during a news conference, adding that the state would fine the livery company $7,500 for failing to operate it safely. However, the extra passengers were not determined to have played any part in the blaze.

Foster City Fire Chief Michael Keefe said that the white stretch limousine's suspension system had failed as it traveled west on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge about 10 o'clock on a Saturday night. The vehicle was carrying a 31-year-old nurse who had recently married, along with eight of her closest friends.

The 1999 Lincoln Town Car's rotating drive shaft came in contact with the floorboard, Keefe said, causing friction, heat and possibly sparks and igniting the materials covering the floorboard.

"As the fire developed, it ignited the foam padding and other material used to fabricate the rear seat," Keefe said.

The flames and resulting smoke "blocked access to the rear doors of the limo, leaving the passengers with one possible exit — through the small pass-through opening into the driver's compartment," he said. "Tragically, not all passengers were able to exit in time."

Photos included in the report released Monday showed a white limo with a black top. The front of the vehicle appeared intact. The rear was severely damaged: the passenger-side back door burned through, the rear tires flattened and wheels melted, the trunk blistered and peeling.

In 911 calls recorded that night, a dispatcher tried to calm a screaming woman. "Ma'am," he said, "I understand you're reporting the car fire on the San Mateo Bridge. Are you involved or a passerby?"

"We are the passenger!" the unidentified woman shrieked. "We are the passenger!"

"Are there parties inside the vehicle?" the dispatcher continued.

"Oh, Lord, nine people," she cried before the signal died.

Neriza Fojas, who was preparing to return to her hometown in the Philippines for a second wedding ceremony in June, died of smoke inhalation, along with Felomina Geronga, 43, Michelle Estrera, 35, Jennifer Balon, 39, and Anna Alcantara, 46.

Their bodies were burned beyond recognition, and dental records were necessary for identification. They were pronounced dead at the scene — the No. 3 lane of westbound California 92 on the Foster City side of the bridge — and their deaths were "near instant," San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said Monday.

After leaving Alameda en route to the party 25 miles away, according to the report, the nine friends began opening presents and taking pictures in the back of the limousine. One popped a bottle of champagne. Then Amalia Loyola, 48, noticed smoke seeping in through the floor. The passenger compartment began to get hotter.

Nelia Arellano, 36, knocked on the partition and told driver Orville Brown that there was smoke in the limo. Brown's response: No smoking allowed. Precious time passed before the women could make the 46-year-old driver understand and pull over. Flames began to shoot up.

Arellano was able to escape. When she saw her friends climbing out too, she called 911, according to the California Highway Patrol.

"But when I checked and there was only two that got out, I went back into the limo and I heard Jasmin [de Guia, 34] say I'm stuck, help me get out," Arellano said.

The women could not escape through the left rear door because the child-safety lock was engaged, the report said. Investigators could not tell if the right rear safety lock was in use because it was too badly burned.

CHP Capt. Mike Maskarich said that the investigation included a thorough inspection of the car and analysis of its maintenance records and the business records of LimoStop Inc., the company that owned and operated it. Officials also conducted extensive interviews with the witnesses and survivors.

"We have concluded that the fire was accidental in nature," Maskarich said.

Although there had been speculation about whether Brown may have been on his cellphone, Maskarich said phone records showed he was not talking when the fire broke out and his passengers called for him to stop the limousine.

"This is a horrific tragedy," said San Mateo County Dist. Atty. Stephen Wagstaffe. "It changed lives forever. But it is not a case that goes to the criminal courts. …This is a tragedy that is not a crime."

maria.laganga@latimes.com

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