CHP: Fatal limo fire caused by mechanical failure


The CHP says its three-month investigation shows a mechanical problem caused the fire that killed five nurses who were trapped in the back of the limousine. They say that fire was sparked by a catastrophic failure of the limo's rear suspension system. Tragic, but not criminal -- authorities say no one involved will face criminal charges, however, the Public Utilities Commission is fining the limousine operator for having too many passengers.

As ABC7 News reported last Friday, investigators concluded in their report released Monday that this was a tragic accident and that no one was to blame -- not the driver and not the owner of the limo company.

"We have concluded the fire is accidental in nature," Redwood City CHP Cmdr. Mike Maskarich said.

"Some tragedies are crimes and some are not. This one is not. And hence, there will not be any criminal charges," said San Mateo District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.

CHP and district attorney's investigators both confirmed what ABC7 News reported Friday -- that they determined the fire was caused by a catastrophic mechanical failure, a fire in which five women were killed in when the limo burst into flames.

"The primary catalyst of this tragedy was the catastrophic failure of the rear suspension system which allowed the drive shaft to ultimately come into contact with the floor panel," Maskarich explained. A critical component of the system is the air shocks. ABC7 News sources and limo mechanics told ABC7 News it's likely that the air suspension system failed because the air shocks ruptured, but investigators say they cannot definitively point to that because the air shocks were destroyed in the fire.

The CHP also wanted to see if anyone was criminally negligent. They focused on the driver, Orville Brown, and the owner of the limousine company, Kultar Singh. ABC7 News reported Friday that at the end of July, the CHP concluded there was no evidence to press criminal charges against the two men.

But then, Brown's estranged wife Rachel Hernandez Brown told reporters the two argued on his cellphone shortly before the fire, as he was driving. "If the driver had been on the phone at the time, in some fashion and we determined that it led to what occurred here, then there would have been a basis for potential criminal charges," Wagstaffe said.

Investigators Monday confirmed what ABC7 News reported Friday -- that they cleared Brown of any wrongdoing. "Upon review of his cell phone records, CHP and district attorney's investigators determined that Mr. Brown was not on his phone at the time of this tragedy," Maskarich said.

The CHP investigation also went through six years of the limo's maintenance records and found no irregularities. In fact, the right suspension system was replaced just a couple of years ago.

The CPUC says it will fine the limo owner $7,500 because the limo had two more passengers than its permit allowed. The CHP says the limo was actually stolen 9 years ago and that the thieves stripped the car. They say that when it was recovered and repaired, the limo was never weighted to see just how much weight it could safely hold.

It may never be known whether the weight of the extra two passengers helped cause the air suspensions to break.

Limo driver cleared of wrongdoing

Orville Brown has been under intense scrutiny during these past few months and now, he's been cleared of any wrongdoing. He endured that horrific night only to find himself under attack from the public, his estranged wife, and even one of the survivors. Brown said he doesn't feel vindicated by the CHP's findings because he knew all along he had done nothing wrong. "It's stressful and painful," he said.

It's been three months since Brown was at the wheel of the limousine that burst into flames on the San Mateo Bridge killing five of his passengers but now that the California Highway Patrol has cleared the 47-year-old of any criminal wrongdoing, Brown has some things to say -- especially about dealing with all the criticism of him.

"It was disturbing, very disturbing. I'm going through stress from the accident alone and then to have something like this happen, it's like, it hurt," Brown said.

The CHP investigation clearly points to a catastrophic failure in the limo's rear suspension system. Since the accident, Brown's actions that night and his life have been highly scrutinized. One survivor claimed the limo driver didn't do enough to help her and the others escape the inferno. More recently, Brown's estranged-wife claimed he was talking on his cell phone and playing loud music just before the fire.

Investigators found that none of it was true. "I mean I knew I wasn't on the phone, but it's painful and you have to reoccur and reoccur. Did I call her 5 minutes before or 10 minutes before?" Brown recalled.

"He answered questions and he was real and he was honest, and I think everybody realizes that when you're telling the truth, it pretty much is going to set you free," said Brown's brother Lewis Brown.

In the end, the CHP investigation revealed that Brown likely could've done little to put out the fire or save the women's lives. He does have message for their families. "I'm hurting just like they are and I feel sorry that this thing happened. It's just a sad situation," Brown said.

Brown and his family plan to sponsor a series of concerts at San Francisco's Castro Theatre and donate the proceeds to the families of the victims.

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