Driver: California limo fire took 3 minutes to claim 5 lives
New details emerge of deadly limo fire that killed bride-to-be, 4 other passengers
REDWOOD CITY, Calif. - First came the tapping. Over the blasting music, limo driver Orville Brown heard someone in the backseat knock on the partition behind him, saying something about smoke. No smoking allowed, he told the crowd of partying women.
Then the taps turned to urgent knocks, and someone screamed "Smoke, smoke" and "Pull over!"
In just a few fleeting moments, five of the women celebrating a girls' night out were killed by flames that overtook the luxury car with terrifying speed.
As smoke thickened in the passenger compartment, Brown pulled the white stretch limo to a stop on a bridge over San Francisco Bay and started pulling women out through the partition that separated him from his passengers.
Three good Samaritans, including a firefighter, stopped to help. The first woman who got out ran to the back and yanked open a door, but Brown said it was already too late.
"I knew it wasn't a good scene. I figured with all that fire that they were gone, man," Brown said. "There were just so many flames. Within maybe 90 seconds, the car was fully engulfed."
From the first tap on the window until the rear of car became an inferno couldn't have taken more than three minutes, Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Authorities searched for answers Monday, hoping to learn what sparked the blaze and why five of the victims could not escape the fast-spreading flames.
The women who were killed in the Saturday night blaze were found pressed up against the 3-foot by 1 ½-foot partition, apparently because smoke and fire kept them from the rear exits of the extended passenger compartment.
The position of the bodies suggested they were trying to get away from the fire, said San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault.
The women were celebrating the wedding of a newlywed friend, Neriza Fojas, who was among the dead.
Fojas and another of the fatalities, Michelle Estrera, were nurses at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno. The remaining three victims have not been identified.
The medical center's CEO, Jack Chubb, said in a statement Monday that Fojas and Estrera were outstanding nurses, loved by their patients, colleagues and staff.
"Both were good friends, stellar nurses and excellent mentors who served as preceptors to new nurses," he said. "We'll dearly miss these two special people who have touched our lives."
Three survivors hospitalized were identified as Jasmine Desguia, 34, of San Jose; Mary Guardiano, 42, of Alameda; and Amalia Loyola, 48, of San Leandro.
Nelia Arellano, 36, of Oakland, who was treated and released, told KGO-TV about the terrifying events.
With a cut visible on her face, an emotional Arellano said she yelled at the driver to stop the car, but he "didn't want to listen."
When Brown did finally stop, Arellano says he did nothing to help the women get out of the burning car after he exited.
Brown told KGO that at first he misunderstood what one of the passengers was saying when she knocked on the partition and talked about smoke. And when the panicked woman knocked a second time and yelled at him to stop, he said he pulled over and all four survivors escaped through the partition. But he said the passenger compartment was quickly engulfed in flames.
"It spread so fast," he said.
Brown said he believed it was an electrical fire. "It could have been smoldering for days," he said, noting there was no explosive boom.
California Highway Patrol Commander Mike Maskarich said the state Public Utilities Commission had authorized the vehicle to carry eight or fewer passengers, but it had nine on the night of the deadly fire. Maskarich said it was too early in the investigation to say whether overcrowding may have been a factor in the deaths.
Commission spokesman Terrie Prosper said Monday that the agency was looking into whether the operator of the limo, a company called Limo Stop, willfully misrepresented the seating capacity to the agency. If so, Limo Stop could be penalized $7,500 for each day it was in violation.
Limo Stop is licensed and has shown evidence of liability insurance, Prosper said. The company has seven vehicles with a seating capacity of up to eight passengers listed with the commission, and it hasn't been the target of any previous enforcement action.
The CPUC requires that all carriers have a preventive maintenance program and maintain a daily vehicle inspection report, Prosper said. Carriers also certify that they are have or are enrolled in a safety education and training program, she said.
Prosper said requirements for emergency exits only apply to buses, and limousines are not required to have fire extinguishers.
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.
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