I first heard about the fatal limousine fire near San Fransisco yesterday while driving to breakfast. As the immensity of the event became apparent, the national networks picked up on it and now CNN, Fox News and others have picked up the story.
The abbreviated version is that five women perished when their rented limousine caught fire on the San Mateo Bridge, located near Foster City, CA. The driver and four women survived the incident, with the four occupants being injured. It has been reported that units from the Foster City Fire Department and Hayward Fire Dept. responded to the fire.
When I fist heard the story, the first thing that came to mind was how did a vehicle fire end up killing five people? I have been on several fatal vehicle fires over the years, most involved either an accident or restrained children. The second thing was, where did the fire start. Most accidental vehicle fires start in the engine area and they usually give plenty of warning before they get large enough to put the occupants at risk.
After watching the TV footage upon my return to home, it was apparent that the fire started either in the rear of the passenger compartment or the front area of the trunk. Either way, fire likely started fairly close to the only designed point(s) of egress for the passenger compartment of the vehicle.
That led to another series of questions, most regarding safety in limousines.
Personally, I don't have a great deal of experience traveling in large limousines. The few times that I have been in them, there were several common factors:
A large group of people. - The limo in question had nine passengers in the back with a capacity for more.
Alcohol - The times I have been in a limo, the alcohol was flowing. Freely. That's why we were in the limo to begin with, we didn't have to worry about driving.
Limited access / egress - During my last limo trip, I only remember one door, located on the passenger's side at the rear. There may have been another one or even a roof hatch, but I sure don't remember seeing one. I can assure my ability to recognize,locate and operate unfamiliar exits would have decreased as the evening progressed. Nor can I tell you whether the windows rolled down or not, I never even thought about it. I can tell you that kicking out a car window is very tough and attempts to do so usually unsuccessful. Even if there were two exits, if both were at the rear, fire may have blocked them both.
Heavy loading and electrical accessories - Most large limos are all about the bling. Excessive upholstery, a multitude of extravagant lighting displays and high powered sound systems all contributed to the festive atmosphere that enhances the limo experience. Unfortunately, all of that stuff burns or are potential ignition sources.
Isolation of the driver - The cab, or driver's compartment was separated by some form of partition, with a small window that could be opened or closed for privacy. That would usually be a good thing, the driver would be less likely to be distracted by the festivities going on in the back. That same isolation might lead to a delay in recognizing a problem, especially if the passengers were impaired or busy having a good time.
In addition, is the driver required to have an extinguisher at hand? Are there flammability requirements for upholstery and other materials used in limousine modifications?
I spent an hour or so searching the web for answers to no avail. I made a few calls, one to a friend of mine who drove a limo on his days-off years ago and another to a limousine manufacturing company.
My friend thought that a minimum of two exits were required in the passenger area, but wasn't sure. He didn't recall about the extinguisher either. I'm still waiting for the limo manufacturing company to call me back.
Like most disasters, I am sure the limousine fire was a chain of relatively minor events that let to the fire and then the loss of five lives. One break in the chain may have prevented the final event. Sadly, that break did not occur and the result was tragic.
One thing for certain, the next time I get in a limo, I am for damn sure going to make sure I know all of the ways to get out. I may even take the uncomfortable seat next to the door.
Thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of the victims, to the survivors and finally to the firefighters and cops who had to deal with the mess. Been there, done that - it truly sucks. I feel your pain.
Thanks for reading,