REDWOOD CITY -- A video recording showed nothing wrong with the white stretch limo as it rolled through the San Mateo Bridge toll plaza, with nine friends in the back celebrating a wedding.
But within minutes, the suspension system of the overloaded limo suddenly failed, igniting a tragedy that authorities on Monday ruled was a terrible accident, not criminal negligence, and that no one will be charged.
In a highly-anticipated news conference, investigators also released a series of 911 calls that underscored the terror as the flames spread through the 1999 Lincoln Town Car just after 10 p.m. on May 4 with five of the nine women trapped inside.
"We need help! I cannot get out! Please help!" one of the survivors, Nelia Arellano, told a 911 operator in a frantic call. "Oh my God! Hold on! Go! Go! Go! We cannot open the doors!"
"Get out! get out!" driver Orville "Ricky" Brown is heard yelling in the background as four of the women, including Arellano, escaped through a tiny partition to the driver's compartment. But five others, including the new bride, did not escape.
The horrific details were revealed Monday afternoon when officials said that a three-month investigation found a "catastrophic failure of the rear suspension system" caused the car to drop onto its drive shaft. The resulting friction ignited carpeting in the passenger compartment, which quickly filled with black smoke, "blocking access to the rear doors," Foster City Fire Chief Michael Keefe said. "The heat and possible sparks generating ignited the materials on the floorboard. As the fire developed it ignited the foam padding" under the carpet.
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe decided no criminal charges will be filed, but the state's Public Utilities Commission, which regulates limousines, will fine the limo company, San Jose-based Limo Stop, $7,500 because the limo exceeded its seven-passenger capacity by two people. Still, investigators said they couldn't determine if that contributed to what started the fire.
"Some tragedies are crimes and some are not," Wagstaffe said. "This is not."
Wagstaffe also said Brown, the driver of the car, would not be charged. Last month, his estranged wife told this newspaper he had been on the phone with her arguing shortly before the fire while driving the limo that night and may have been distracted. Authorities then checked Brown's cellphone records and learned he made two calls to his wife in the hour before the fire, including a 30-second call within eight minutes of the blaze. But Wagstaffe said that was not a crime.
"This unfolded very, very rapidly and the overall nature of this tragedy was not something that was foreseeable," CHP Commander Mike Maskarich said at the news conference. Authorities said they couldn't determine what caused the suspension system's failure. Even then, a device known as a "travel stop" designed to keep the drive shaft from rubbing on the bottom of the passenger compartment "was not effective in maintaining clearance," a Foster City Fire Department report released Monday said.
The car did not scrape on the roadway, he said. Video from both the toll plaza and earlier that day showing the car at San Francisco International Airport showed nothing wrong with the rear of vehicle, Maskarich said.
But cracks in the car's undercarriage may have allowed sparks to quickly ignite the carpet. Authorities still don't know whether those cracks existed before the fire or were caused by the heat, Maskarich said.
Maskarich said investigators could not determine whether the overcrowding in the car contributed to the failure of the suspension system. That system was first designed to support 7,100 pounds, including passengers. But the 1999 Lincoln Town Car was stolen in 2004 and stripped. When it was restored, no further load testing was done, making it impossible to determine if the amount of weight it could bear had changed.
Limo Stop's owner Kultar Singh declined to comment Monday. His attorney, Doug Sears, said, "We did everything we had to do to keep (the limo) in proper driving condition. It was a horrible accident."
The five women who died, newlywed bride Neriza Fojas, 31, of Monterey; Jennifer Balon, 39, of Dublin; Michelle Estrera, 35, of Fresno; Anna Alcantara, 46, of San Lorenzo; and Felomina Geronga, 43, of Alameda, all died of smoke inhalation, San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said. A small amount of alcohol, "well below the legal limit," was found in their remains, he said.
Los Angeles attorney Spender Lucas, who represents two of the victims' families, the Alcantaras and Estreras, as well as the four surviving passengers, said they were thankful for a thorough investigation.
"This is just such an unspeakable tragedy for everyone involved," he said. "There are husbands who lost wives, sons who lost mothers and parents who lost children." The survivors and families of the victims are planning to sue Limo Stop, he said.
Keefe said Monday he hoped limo safety improvements such as pop-out windows, mandatory fire extinguishers and passenger safety briefings being proposed by Bay Area lawmakers would help passengers trapped in similar fires.
Last month, this newspaper rented the same make and model limousine that was involved in the fire and found there are few good options to escape the back in an emergency. If the doors are blocked, passengers can only get out by breaking a window or climbing through the partition to the driver's compartment, like the ones who escaped on May 4.
The victims who couldn't make it through the small opening in time, Lucas said, "really had no chance." The first CHP officer to reach the burning limo made that clear in 911 tapes from the bridge released Monday:
"There are five more people trapped inside. ... The doors are locked, I can't get inside the car. I don't think there's anything we can do."