May 6, 2013

Investigators seek answers in deadly San Francisco limo fire

By Garance Burke and Martha Mendoza / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Officials investigate the scene of a limousine fire on the westbound side of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in Foster City, Calif., on Saturday night. Five people died when they were trapped in the limo; four others and the driver escaped.

The Associated Press

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."

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