The deadly limousine fire that killed five women on the San Mateo Bridge in May "was accidental in nature," the California Highway Patrol announced Monday. Officials announced no criminal charges will be filed.
CHP held a news conference to release the results of its formal investigation, including how the fire started and whether any laws were broken. CHP Captain Mike Maskarich said the fire was the result of a "catastrophic failure of the rear suspension system."
The San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said there was no basis for filing criminal charges. "This is a tragedy that is not a crime," Wagstaffe said.
Five women, including the bride-to-be, were killed May 4 when the 1999 Lincoln Town Car they were riding in on their way to a bridal party burst into flames. Four of the nine women inside the limo survived. Most were mothers and nurses in the East Bay.
“The failure of the suspension system…allowed the drive shaft to contact the floor board,” Foster City Fire Chief Michael Keefe said. “The heat and possible sparks generated from the friction from the rotation drive shaft and the underside of the floor plan beneath the leading edge of the rear seat ignited the materials covering the floorboard.”
Smoke and fire blocked access to rear doors, leaving the passengers a small pass-through into the driver’s compartment as the only escape option, Keefe said.
Dramatic recordings of 911 calls at the scene of the fire reveal 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 Monday 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!"
Three days after the crash, the CHP announced that the limo was authorized to carry eight passengers, not nine, and that the company, Limo Stop, could be fined by the California Public Utilities Commission. Officials announced Monday the company will face a $7,500 citation for operating with too many passengers.
The five women killed were among nine passengers in the limousine celebrating the wedding of Neriza Fojas, 31, of 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.
Orville Brown was driving the limo and became the focus of the investigation after his estranged wife claimed the two were arguing on a cell phone while he was driving as the fire erupted. Maskarich disputed those allegations Monday, saying Brown was not on his cell phone in the moments leading up to the fire.
In July, Rachel Hernandez-Brown told NBC Bay Area in an on-camera interview, that she was in a volatile relationship with Brown and had been arguing with him on the phone just minutes before the limo burst into flames. The couple had split up a month before the fire, she said, and the day of the fire, police were called to break up an argument between the two.
"They were beautiful ladies," Orville Brown told NBC Bay Area in May after the tragedy. He said he did not understand at first what was going on when one of the women yelled "Smoke." He thought at first that the women wanted a cigarette.
He said only when he understood the gravity of the situation was when he he pulled over and got on the phone - only to call for help.
Bay City News contributed to this report.