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The bar of a 1999 Lincoln Town Car car stretch limousine, is seen here on Friday, July 19, 2013 in Milbrae, Calif. This limo is the same model that caught fire killing five women on the San Mateo Bridge. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Why couldn't more of them escape?

It remains one of the most haunting questions three months to the day after a grisly limousine fire killed a new bride and four of her friends on the San Mateo Bridge on the first Saturday night in May.

Surrounded by smoke, then flames, they were trapped in the back of a 1999 Lincoln Town Car stretch limousine, with the four survivors crawling into the driver's seat through a partition window about 18 inches high by about 3 feet wide. Five of their friends -- all nurses -- were found dead near that opening.

Now, as investigators prepare to release findings into what started the fire, and lawmakers push for new safety requirements, the Bay Area News Group rented the same year and model of limo -- one of the industry's workhorses -- to see what needs to change so passengers can get out in an emergency.

We found there are no emergency exits. No windows that can be pushed open. Not even an alarm to alert the driver of trouble.

And just like most newer cars, there are child safety locks that, if engaged, prevent passengers from opening a door from inside the car -- even when the door appears to be unlocked. Limo drivers say those locks are sometimes used to keep passengers from inadvertently opening the door, especially those who have been drinking. It isn't clear if the women tried to open the doors during the fire on the bridge, but some of the survivors' spouses have said the doors wouldn't budge.

"No one should have had to die," Lena Venn-Marshall, 49, said of the bridge fire. The San Jose woman had her own harrowing experience in 2011 when the limo she rented caught fire on her wedding day, igniting tinder dry brush nearby. As the flames consumed the front of the car, she and six other passengers escaped through the rear doors.

When her son asked the driver for a fire extinguisher, she said, the driver replied, "'If there is one, I would have no idea where it would be.'"

Chauffeur Jerry Jacobs the child safety lock on the 1999 Lincoln Town Car is a "ludicrous" feature. It is seen here on Friday, July 19, 2013 in
Chauffeur Jerry Jacobs the child safety lock on the 1999 Lincoln Town Car is a "ludicrous" feature. It is seen here on Friday, July 19, 2013 in Milbrae, Calif. This is the same model limo that caught fire on the San Mateo Bridge killing five women. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Lawmakers are proposing new limousine safety requirements such as fire emergency exits, fire extinguishers and safety instructions like the ones that airline passengers receive before commercial flights.

"It was such a terrible tragedy to think about -- people off celebrating and having a fire block their exit," said state Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, who proposed a limo safety law after the May 4 fire. "Just think about how horrific that was."

In the limo this newspaper rented, the escape options were few if the doors were to be blocked or wouldn't open. Passengers could try to break out a window. But without a tool like a crow bar, it would be difficult to crack the glass. That would leave riders facing danger with just one option: the opening in the partition between the passenger area and driver's compartment.

That divider, however, can be opened only by the driver or by using a control panel at the back of the passenger compartment. It's in the same area where the fatal fire broke out. And like the power locks for the doors, the controls for the partition divider require electricity to function.

After a limo fire disrupted her wedding, Venn-Marshall said, she tried to draw attention to limo safety, but didn't get far. Then came the news of the horrific fire on the San Mateo Bridge. "It really made me feel sick to my stomach," she said. "I was just thinking that hopefully somebody would do something now."

Now Corbett and other lawmakers are paying attention. People renting limos are "off to have a little fun, and yet they are riding in a vehicle that could cause the end of their lives," she said.

Her proposal targets a lightly regulated industry, one in which limousines designed to carry eight or fewer passengers are not inspected for safety and there is no requirement that drivers be trained to respond to emergencies. The limo that caught fire on the bridge was owned by San Jose-based Limo Stop and was carrying one passenger more than legally allowed. The government also doesn't regulate how the cars are stretched into limousines -- with cars cut in half and larger passenger compartments inserted in the middle.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has introduced a bill requiring limos to carry fire extinguishers and has said he is likely to add more safety requirements as the investigation unfolds.

But the state limousine industry is treating Corbett's and Hill's ideas skeptically, said Rich Azzolino, vice president of the Greater California Livery Association. Any changes "aren't meaningful until you have the cause of the accident," and the proposed safety features are mostly "costly and not practical," he said.

Devices such as fire extinguishers in the passenger cabin or hammers to break windows would be trouble if they fell into the hands of drunken passengers, he said. "What do you think they are going to do ... with a hammer?"

Putting in escape options could weaken a limo's ability to withstand a crash, he said, and endanger more people.

In meetings with lawmakers, "it didn't matter what we said," Azzolino said.

The industry supports annual government inspections of smaller limos, but if the state requires that pop-out windows, extra doors or emergency hatches be installed in cars already in service, limo owners are going to want "government money" to pay for the changes.

Azzolino insists that by preventing passengers from getting out of a limo at the wrong time, child safety locks have "saved more lives" than were lost in the bridge fire.

But Jerry Jacobs, owner of a small Marin County limo company who rented one his cars to this newspaper, said he finds the use of child safety locks "ludicrous."

Drivers have to trust their passengers, he said, and telling them not to get out the driver's side of the car should be enough. "If someone is seven sheets to the wind they shouldn't be picked up in the car in the first place," Jacobs said. "You've got to be responsible for your own actions."

Jacobs said he supports most of what Corbett has proposed, but cost is a big factor for smaller operators like him. An extra door could cost up to $10,000 and is "overkill," he said. Even though pop-out windows could run a few thousand dollars, he supports the idea.

"What can be done to protect the public in the future?" Jacobs asked, pointing to a long glass panel that runs along the passenger compartment. "Panic buttons are a great idea. ... And if that big window were to pop out, that's more than enough room for people to get out."

Contact Thomas Peele at tpeele@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele. Contact Joshua Melvin at jmelvin@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/melvinreport.