By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A failed suspension system sparked a California limousine fire that killed a new bride and four passengers trapped inside when the vehicle burst into flames on a bridge over the San Francisco Bay, investigators said on Monday.
Authorities investigating the fire on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in May concluded that it was an accident and that no criminal charges should be filed, law enforcement officials said at a news conference to announce the findings, which were also released in a 59-page report.
"Some tragedies are crimes and some are not. This one is not," San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said.
New bride Neriza Fojas, 31, and eight female friends were traveling across the bridge in a white stretch 1999 Lincoln Town Car for Fojas' wedding celebration, when the vehicle's interior began to smoke and catch fire.
Four of the women were able to escape by climbing through an opening that separated passengers from the limo driver compartment.
Fojas and four of her friends died of smoke inhalation while trying to climb through the same partition, San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said.
A more than three-month investigation into the accident concluded that during the drive, a failed suspension system forced the limo's drive shaft to rub against its floor pan, causing heat and possible sparks to ignite the materials covering the vehicle's floorboard, Foster City Fire Department Chief Michael Keefe said at the news conference.
The fire spread to foam padding inside the limo's rear seats, causing black smoke and fire inside the passenger area of the vehicle, Keefe said.
The smoke and fire blocked access to the limo's rear doors, leaving passengers with one exit through a small opening between the passenger area and the driver's compartment, Keefe said.
The investigation also exonerated the limousine driver, Orville Brown, who had been criticized by a surviving passenger for failing to pull over soon enough after smoke was seen in the passenger compartment.
"The tragedy unfolded very, very quickly, and so as soon as Mr. Brown had the opportunity to pull over he did," Keefe said. He said that a review of phone records showed that Brown was not on the phone during the drive.
Limo Stop, the vehicle's owner would not be held accountable for the fire, but a fine of $7,500 would be imposed on the company for allowing the vehicle to carry two more passengers than it had seat belts on the night of the fire, California Public Utilities Commission Director Emory Hagan said.
California Highway Patrol officials plan to work with lawmakers to recommend future safety requirements in limousines, including driver training and secondary exiting, Keefe said.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Sandra Maler)