Survivor of limo fire disputes driver's account

8:10 AM, May 7, 2013   |    comments
San Mateo County firefighters and California Highway Patrol personnel investigate the scene of a limousine fire on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in Foster City, Calif., on Saturday. (Photo: Jane Tyska, AP)
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(USATODAY.com) - One of the survivors of a limousine fire that killed five women on a San Francisco Bay bridge is disputing the driver's version of what happened when the limo burst into flames.

Nelia Arellano told San Francisco's KGO-TV that she yelled at the driver to stop the car, but he "didn't want to listen."

When the driver, Orville Brown, did finally stop, Arellano says he did nothing to help the women get out of the burning car after he exited.

Brown has said that, at first, he misunderstood what one of the passengers in the back was saying when she knocked on the partition between the passenger area and the driver and complained about smelling smoke.

With the music up, he initially thought the woman was asking if she could smoke. Seconds later, he said, the women knocked again, this time screaming, "Smoke, smoke!" and "Pull over," Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Brown says he helped four of the surviving women escape through the partition, though the limo was engulfed so quickly that he couldn't help everyone get out.

Officials at a Fresno, Calif., hospital said Monday that two of its nurses were among those killed. Neriza Fojas and Michelle Estrera worked on a trauma medical/surgical floor at the Community Regional Medical Center.

The women were headed across the San Francisco Bay to a hotel in Foster City on Saturday night for a bridal shower for Fojas.

Investigators had not determined Monday why the limo burst into flames, but they did note that the vehicle was carrying one more passenger than allowed under state regulations.

The five who died were found huddled near a partition between their compartment and the driver's. Unable to squeeze through a small opening, they "succumbed to the smoke and flames," Mike Maskarich of the California Highway Patrol said at a news conference Monday.

"My guess would be they were trying to get away from the fire and use that window opening as an escape route," San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said earlier.

The four survivors escaped by squeezing through the 3-foot-by-1 1/2-foot opening. Two were in critical condition Monday.

Autopsies were being performed Monday. Dental records were expected to be needed to identify some victims.

The 1999 Lincoln Town Car was westbound on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, which connects San Mateo and Alameda counties, about 20 miles southeast of San Francisco.

Many stretch limousines have doors at the front and the back, but not along the elongated section of the vehicle.

The company that operated the limo was identified as Limo Stop, of San Jose, which offers service through limousines, vans and SUVS. According to records from the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates limousine companies, Limo Stop is licensed and insured.

Maskarich said the stretch limo is considered a "charter party vehicle" and was listed with the PUC to carry eight or fewer passengers.

"There were nine," Maskarich said. Officials did not comment on whether the overcrowding played any role in the tragedy.

He said it appears that Brown, the driver, was properly licensed.

The company 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."

Fojas' sister, Rosalyn Bersamin, told the Chronicle that Fojas and her friends, after a night on the town, were heading to the hotel to join Fojas' new husband. "She was a hard worker, a loving sister," a sobbing Bersamin told the newspaper.

The couple, who were already married, planned to repeat their marriage vows in the Philippines next month, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

The injured, all from California, are Mary Guardiano, 42, of Alameda; Nelia Arrellano, 36, of Oakland; Amalia Loyola, 48, of San Leandro; and Jasmine Desguia, 34, of San Jose.

Contributing: Alia E. Dastagir in Tysons, Va.; Associated Press

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