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Limousine fire: Cause of fire that killed bride, 4 others under investigation

May 6, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Investigators are trying to determine why a limousine caught on fire in the San Francisco Bay area, killing five of nine women inside, including a newlywed bride.

The incident happened around 10 p.m. Saturday as the Lincoln Town Car was crossing the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge.

During a Monday morning news conference, California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Maskarich said the vehicle was listed by the state Public Utilities Commission for eight or fewer passengers, but had nine. He also said the driver was appropriately licensed to operate the vehicle he was using.

Family members identified the bride as 31-year-old Neriza Fojas, a registered nurse who recently got married in the U.S. and was planning another ceremony in the Philippines next month. It was earlier reported that she had not yet married.

Her friends in the limousine were reportedly fellow nurses.

Fojas' sister, Rosalyn Bersamin, told the San Francisco Chronicle that after a night out on the town, Fojas and her friends were heading to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City to party with her new husband.

The driver of the limo, 46-year-old Orville Brown of San Jose, was the only person who escaped unhurt.

Nelia Arrellano, 36, of Oakland, was the first one to escape the burning limousine. She said she climbed over the glass partition and went out the driver's side, but she couldn't save all of her friends trapped by the inferno. Arrellano said she alerted the driver at the first sign of trouble.

Brown said he initially misunderstood what one of the passengers in the back was saying. He thought the woman had asked if she could smoke. But seconds later the passengers knocked again and screamed for him to pull over because there was smoke.

"I just saw...the grief on her face and then I just started smelling smoke and started seeing smoke," said Brown.

Brown said he pulled over on the bridge about 30 to 90 seconds later. Flames had quickly engulfed the back end of the limo. The women moved away from the back doors, toward the partition to get out.

"There was a lady coming through that got stuck. I pulled her out, and then one more got out. It was just horrific. It was something that I never would imagine to happen," said Brown.

Fojas and four other passengers who couldn't make it out of the limo were found dead as firefighters doused the vehicle. Officials said all five were huddled near the partition, apparently unable to squeeze through.

Arrellano said she pulled one friend out of the burning car. She believes the others may have been overcome by the smoke and couldn't climb to safety. Two drivers stopped to help, but by that time, it was too late.

"They pulled over and helped us. I said, 'I need to go back. I need to go back and save them.' But the man said, 'No, you cannot go back anymore,'" said Arrellano.

Authorities have not officially released the names of the victims who died. Grace Kanu, one of Fojas' coworkers, said fellow nurse Michelle Estrera was killed in the fire.

"It's unbelievable. It's not even coworkers, they are two nice nurses, really good workers," Kanu said of Fojas and Estrera.

The CHP said Arrellano and the three other women who escaped the fire -- Mary G. Guardiano, 42, of Alameda; Jasmine Desguia, 34, of San Jose; and Amalia Loyola, 48, of San Leandro -- were being treated at nearby hospitals for burns and smoke inhalation. Two of them were listed in critical condition Monday.

Limo Stop, the company that operated the limo, issued a statement saying it "will do everything possible to investigate and assist authorities in determining the cause of this fire in order to bring forth answers and provide closure to the victims and their families."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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