Limo companies weigh in on possible causes of fire

May 7, 2013 9:19:51 PM PDT
In the wake of the tragic limousine fire on the San Mateo Bridge, more questions are coming up regarding the limo industry's safety practices.

Le Grande Affaire has been building customs limos and vans in the Santa Clara Valley for 28 years. Owner Phil Restivo says his company did not build the limo which caught fire Saturday night but he was very disturbed by the accident.

"It's like a limousine operator's worst nightmare to have a car catch on fire. And I've never seen, in the business for 28 years, I've never seen something so catastrophic like that one," he said.

After seeing the video of the limo engulfed in flames, Restivo believes he knows what might have caused the fire.

"I would assume that the gas tank caught fire," he said.

Le Grande Affaire also offers limos for hire. Each vehicle is checked daily and thoroughly inspected inside and out at least once a month for safety. Each car in the fleet carries a fire extinguisher up front with the driver. The company also has a strict capacity limit.

"But we definitely do not put more than capacity in the vehicles. Not only for safety reasons but because the cars were not built to carry that extra weight," said Restivo.

Restivo says people shouldn't be afraid to ride in a limousine but should always look out for red flags when renting one for a special occasion.

"When you call a operator, if the price seems below market than what everyone else is charging, then that should be a red flag," said Restivo.

Yousef Mustafa, the owner of Royal Auto Service in South San Francisco, also believes the gas tank caught fire. There were nine passengers riding in the limo, one more than the vehicle was allowed to have, and witnesses say the limo was extremely low to the road before the fire.

"One of the springs in the back failed, causing the car to drop because of the weight of the limo, the weight of the people," Mustafa said.

Since the San Mateo Bridge was built in sections, cars tend to bounce as they drive on the roadway.

"So if that car bounced a little too hard, when it dropped, it would probably scrape, creating a gouge in the gas tank and at the same time, creating a spark and that's what lit up the fire," Mustafa said.

Although the California Highway Patrol is investigating the accident, the California Public Utilities Commission is the state agency that regulates limousines. Critics say the regulations are too lax.

Limos with fewer than 10 people aboard do not have to go through regular CHP safety inspections. Those with fewer than eight passengers are not required to have fire extinguishers.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, is planning to change that.

"We're going to introduce a bill in the next week that will require fire extinguishers at least as a minimum to start out...o require fire extinguishers in the passenger compartment area of every limousine in the state," he said.

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