Authorities searched for answers Monday in the fire that roared through a stretch limo packed with women on a girls' night out, hoping to learn what sparked the blaze and why five of the victims could not escape the fast-spreading flames.
The women who were killed were found pressed up against the partition behind the driver, apparently because smoke and fire kept them from the rear exits of the extended passenger compartment.
The position of the bodies suggested they were trying to get away from the fire, said San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault. His office planned to begin autopsies later Monday.
The women were celebrating the wedding of a newlywed friend when the rear portion of the Lincoln Town Car went up in flames Saturday night on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge over San Francisco Bay. The driver and four women were able to escape. The newlywed was among the dead.
The driver, Orville Brown, 46, of San Jose, said at first he misunderstood what one of the passengers in the back was saying when she knocked on the partition between the passenger area and the driver and complained about smelling smoke.
With the music turned up, 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 told the San Francisco Chronicle (http://bit.ly/10jcd0t ).
He helped the four survivors escape through the partition. One of the women ran around to a rear passenger door, but by then the vehicle was engulfed in flames.
"When she opened that back door, I knew it wasn't a good scene," Brown said. "I figured with all that fire that they were gone, man. There were just so many flames. Within maybe 90 seconds, the car was fully engulfed."
California Highway Patrol Commander Mike Maskarich said the state Public Utilities Commission had authorized the vehicle to carry eight or fewer passengers, but it had nine on the night of the deadly fire.
He said it was too early in the investigation to say whether overcrowding may have been a factor in the deaths. Investigators have conducted preliminary interviews with the survivors and the driver, but more in-depth interviews, as well as an inspection of the gutted vehicle, were still needed.
It will take a few weeks for investigators to piece together "some semblance of answers for the tragic events that just occurred," Maskarich said.
Debris or any other objects on the roadway do not appear to have been a factor, he said.
"We are devastated by this incident," Foster City Fire Chief Michael Keefe said.
A spokesman for the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates limos, said Monday that the limo owner, a company called Limo Stop, is licensed and has shown evidence of liability insurance. The company has seven vehicles with a seating capacity of up to eight passengers listed with the CPUC. It has not been the target of any previous enforcement action. Limo Stop received its permit in June 9, 2006, the agency said.
Joan Claybrook, the top federal auto-safety regulator under President Jimmy Carter, said the stretch limousine industry is poorly regulated because the main agency that oversees car safety doesn't have enough money to prioritize investigating the small businesses that modify limos after they leave the assembly line.
"I think the oversight is pretty lousy, because the modifications are so individualistic, and there are not that many companies out there that do this. Mostly, they are mom-and-pop operations," said Claybrook, a former administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who previously led consumer group Public Citizen. Instead, the agency tends to focus more on problems with new cars and major recalls.
U.S. Department of Transportation data shows five people died in three separate stretch limo accidents in 2010, and 21 people died in another three stretch limo accidents in 2011.
Stretch limos are typically built in two ways.
In the first process, one car maker builds the limousine's body, then another company customizes or stretches the vehicle. The second company has to issue a certification that the car meets National Highway Traffic Safety Administration safety standards for new vehicles, and that all safety equipment is working as required before it can be sold to the public, said Henry Jasny, an attorney with the Washington-based nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
In the second process, a customer buys the limousine directly from the car maker, then takes it to be customized. But modifying the car after it has been sold is considered a retrofit, so is not something NHTSA would regulate, Jasny said.
Many older models such as the 1999 Lincoln Town Car that caught fire Saturday were modified after they left the factory, said Jerry Jacobs, who owns a boutique limousine company in in San Rafael with a fleet that includes two stretch limos.
"There is nothing wrong with having these older models on the road. Many have low mileage and immaculate interiors because we take care of them. But when these cars start getting older and the rubber boots wear out, they start running hot," Jacobs said. "The key is you have to keep doing all the right maintenance to make sure they're running smoothly."