Written by Charles Burress
Authorities announced today that a mechanical problem was the cause of a fire that killed five women in a limousine on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in May and that no criminal charges will be filed in connection with the tragedy.
The announcements were made by officials with the California Highway Patrol, the San Mateo County coroner's and district attorney's offices and other agencies at a news conference this afternoon at the CHP's Redwood City office.
The limousine, driven by Orville Brown, 46, had a failure of its suspension system, causing the vehicle's driveshaft to make contact with the floorboard. That friction generated heat that sparked the fire, according to a report released by the CHP.
"The overall nature of this tragedy was not something that was foreseeable, CHP Cmdr. Mike Maskarich said.
Investigators determined that Brown, the limo driver, was not on his cellphone when the fire started, District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said.
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 it.
"Some tragedies are crimes and some are not. This tragedy was not," Wagstaffe said.
The five women killed were among nine passengers in the limousine celebrating the wedding of Neriza Fojas, 31, Monterey.
Killed in the fire were Fojas; Jennifer Balon, 39, of Dublin; Anna Alcantara, 46, of San Lorenzo; Michelle Estrera, 35, of Fresno; and Felomina Geronga, 43, of Alameda.
San Mateo Coroner Robert Foucrault said all five died of smoke inhalation and their deaths have been ruled accidental.
Those who survived the fire are Jasmin Deguia, 34, of San Jose; Mary Guardiano, 42, of Alameda; Nelia Arellano, 36, of Oakland; and Amalia Loyola, 48, of San Leandro.
Eight of the nine women in the limo were current or former employees at the Fruitvale Health Care Center in Oakland.
The California Public Utilities Commission will cite the limo company $7,500 for allowing nine passengers in the car, above its lawful capacity of seven, said Jack Hagan, director of the CPUC's safety and enforcement division.
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, issued a statement following today's announcement. Corbett has introduced legislation requiring the pop-out windows and other new regulations on the limos.
She said in the statement that the new requirements will ensure that "future tragedies such as the one that occurred on that fateful night on the bridge can be prevented."
Dramatic recordings of 911 calls at the scene of a limousine fire that killed five women on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in May revealed desperate pleas for help outside the burning vehicle.
"We need help on the San Mateo Bridge!" cried a female voice at 10:07 p.m. on May 4 in the first of more than a dozen emergency calls about the fire that were released today by the California Highway Patrol. "Oh my God, oh my God. I cannot open the door!"
A male voice then yelled, "Get out, get out, get out!"
Moments later, a CHP officer calling from the scene of the deadly blaze 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."
The recordings were released to the media by the CHP today after authorities announced that the fire was caused by a mechanical problem in the limo and that no criminal charges would be filed in connection with the tragedy.
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