Deadly California Limo Fire Due to Mechanical Problems

By MARTHA MENDOZA | August 21, 2013

A mechanical problem ignited a limousine fire that killed five nurses trapped in the back, the California Highway Patrol said Monday as it released results of its investigation and 911 calls filled with screams from those inside.

The blaze broke out on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge on May 4 because of a catastrophic failure of the rear suspension system, CHP Capt. Mike Maskarich said. The air suspension failure allowed the spinning driveshaft to contact the floor pan, causing friction that ignited carpets and set the vehicle on fire, authorities said.

No charges will be filed, authorities said. The Public Utilities Commission is fining the limo operator $1,500 for having more passengers than allowed.

The fire broke out while a nurse, Neriza Fojas, was celebrating her recent wedding with a group of friends.

She was among the five killed. Four other friends inside the limo and the limo driver survived.

Recordings of 911 calls released Monday include a woman’s voice shouting “Oh my God! Oh my God!” and a man’s voice shouting “Get out! Get out!” There were also cries and screams from callers and passengers.

“It’s a limousine that’s fully engulfed and there are people trapped inside,” one caller said.

A woman who said she was a passenger screamed as she told the dispatcher there were people inside the burning limo.

On another call a rescuer told a dispatcher: “I don’t think there is anything we can do.”

“The rear of the limo is fully engulfed and the doors are locked,” the rescuer said.

One caller broke into tears as he described the scene to an operator who reassured him that help was coming.

Authorities reviewed video and photos of the fire and interviewed survivors, including the limo driver, Orville Brown.

Brown, 46, of San Jose, said at first he misunderstood what one of the passengers in the back of the 1999 Lincoln Town Car was saying when she knocked on the partition window.

With the music turned up, Brown said he initially thought the woman was asking if she could smoke. Seconds later, he said, the women knocked again, this time screaming, “Smoke, smoke!” and “Pull over.”

Brown said he helped the four survivors escape through the partition. One of women ran around to a rear passenger door but by then the vehicle was engulfed in flames.

One of the survivors, a sobbing Nelia Arellano, told KGO-TV a few days after the fire that Brown “didn’t do anything” to help the women escape the car, and in a later interview said he had been talking on the phone.

But authorities said they reviewed Brown’s telephone records and that he was not on the phone during the accident.

Brown’s brother, Lewis Brown, an attorney based in Vallejo, denied the accusations to NBC Bay Area.

The state Public Utilities Commission had authorized the vehicle to carry eight or fewer passengers, but it had nine on the night of the fire.

Aerial video shot after the incident showed about a third of the back half of the limousine scorched by the fire. Its taillights and bumper were gone and it appeared to be resting on its rims, but the remainder of the vehicle didn’t appear to be damaged.

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