So That Burnt Party Bus? Officials Say It Was Operating Illegally

The PPA and the Public Utility Commission are conducting investigations of Double Dz.

It's not hard to see how this could have ended tragically. (Photo by Brian Howard)

It’s not hard to see how this could have ended tragically. Photo | Brian Howard

We’ve all been having some good laughs over the Double Dz party bus that was burnt to a crisp on Broad Street last weekend, because with a slippery, fast-talking guy like Double Dz owner Blake Harris and tales and photos from the bachelorette party that used the bus the night that it burned, it’s hard not to at least chuckle a little. But in reality, this is no laughing matter.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize how a party bus going up in flames — and keep in mind that one of the bachelorette party gals told us that she was actually on the bus when it ignited — could have wound up as a tragic story that led the nightly news, with vigils and makeshift memorials going up outside St. Rita’s at Broad and Federal, where the fire raged.

The passengers could have been killed, bystanders could have been injured, and nearby property could have been badly damaged. Deadly fires and fatal accidents involving party buses and other limousine-type vehicles do occur, and in 2013, a California bride and her four friends died when their ride burst into flames due to mechanical issues.

That’s why you can’t just buy a bus and start driving people around. There are rules and regulations, there are safety protocols and special inspections, and there are driver requirements that seek to ensure that the person behind the wheel actually knows what they’re doing.

In Pennsylvania, the laws and regulatory bodies for limousine companies (party buses are classified as limousines) vary based on a number of factors, including the size of the vehicle and whether you are taking it outside of city and state limits. But there is absolutely no way to get around the fact that a party bus operating in the state must be inspected by and registered with either or both of the following agencies: The Pennsylvania Utility Commission (PUC) or the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA).

Bachelorette Ginene MacMullen told us that she had a total of 23 people on the Double Dz bus on Saturday night. A vehicle that accommodates that many passengers falls under the jurisdiction of the PUC, whether it operates in Philadelphia alone or elsewhere in the state. So we asked Harris if the Double Dz party bus was registered with the PUC.

“Yes,” he replied via text message. “It takes a few months to come in the mail. I won’t show [it] until I get it in the mail.”

PUC spokesperson Nils Hagen-Frederiksen laughed at that claim.

“The PUC doesn’t send the certification in the mail,” he explains. “We assume that any person seeking certification has a computer, so you just download and print it.” He added that Harris and Double Dz are most definitely not registered with the PUC.

“We don’t have any record of them applying for or receiving approval for a PUC certificate,” he says. “Nor do we have the required proof of insurance, the completion of a safety fitness review and other requirements, all aimed at protecting passengers and the public.”

During an interview on Sunday, Harris told us that Double Dz had three party buses available for hire, so we went back to him after speaking with the PUC to ask him why he was operating three party buses illegally.

First, he told us that he didn’t really have three buses.

“I just wanted to sound good [and] brag,” he texted.

Then he tried to tell us that his company is private and that he has never offered services to the general public since Double Dz debuted in 2014, even though MacMullen made it very clear to us that she hired him based solely on his advertisements on Instagram, where the service is quite clearly advertised to the general public. There’s even an 800 number.

And then, as if your head wasn’t already spinning, the person who responded to our original text message addressed to Blake Harris — on the same cell phone number that Blake Harris uses in his e-mail signature, the same cell phone that the person identifying himself as Blake Harris used to speak with us on Sunday — told us that we were not speaking to Blake Harris and that we never had. This person who now claimed not to be Blake Harris promised to get Blake Harris to call.

Still with us?

The next communication to come was a message indicating that the Double Dz party bus in question only seats 13.

“So until I decide to use my bigger buses, this [isn’t] an issue,” he wrote, explaining why he doesn’t need to be certified by the PUC, even though he had just told us that he was certified by the PUC.

As for his assertion that a bus with a capacity of 13 doesn’t require PUC oversight, that may be true. Any party bus with a capacity of 15 or less that operates within Philadelphia exclusively — meaning it never travels over county lines — does not require PUC certification. For vehicles that fit those criteria, the PPA handles certification and oversight.

But Harris’ advertisements certainly seem to suggest that Double Dz is available to customers from New York to Washington D.C. Indeed, Double Dz responded via text to a prospective customer on Tuesday morning by offering transportation to New York and D.C. in multiple vehicles that accommodate anywhere from 20 to 70 passengers.

Once a Double Dz bus ventures elsewhere in Pennsylvania, it needs PUC certification, and once it crosses state lines, it requires certification with the federal Department of Transportation. Double Dz appears to have neither.

But let’s just say that Double Dz never leaves Philadelphia with its bus that supposedly only holds 13. There are still two problems with that story. First, bachelorette MacMullen told us that she had 23 people on the bus, not 13. And second, a bus for 13 still needs to be certified by the PPA, and the PPA tells us that it had never heard of Blake Harris or Double Dz until we called them for this story.

“There are so many people out there operating like this,” laments Kennett Square’s Perry Camerlengo, president of the 20-year-old Luxury Limousines and executive board member of the Philadelphia Regional Limousine Association. “But this guy was flagrant. Most guys that try to do it do it under the radar.”

Camerlengo said that customers should ask to see a copy of the required certifications and liability insurance.

“But we’ve never once been asked,” he admits. “It’s like a contractor. You hope he has worker’s comp on his men, but then when one falls off your roof, you find out that he doesn’t, and then you’re in the middle of a lawsuit.”

Speaking of lawsuits, MacMullen originally mentioned the possibility of legal action after her bachelorette party turned into a “nightmare” thanks to the burnt Double Dz party bus, but on Monday afternoon, she contacted us to say that Harris issued a full refund and that she was satisfied with that.

MacMullen might be satisfied, but the PUC and the PPA are not.

The PUC has inspectors in town this week thanks to all of the buses coming here for the Philadelphia Flower Show, and the agency tells us that it is looking into the Double Dz incident.

As for the PPA, members of their Taxi & Limousine Enforcement Division tracked down the burnt remains of the bus outside of Double Dz’s registered address in West Philadelphia on Tuesday morning:

They tell us that they’ve launched a full-scale investigation.

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.