Authorities reveal how survivors escaped limo fire on San Francisco Bay bridge

5 women killed, 4 injured

SAN FRANCISCO - The driver of a limousine that burst into flames on a San Francisco Bay area bridge, killing five women, says he at first misunderstood what one of the passengers in the back was saying when she complained about smelling smoke.
 
Orville Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle that 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."

The fire broke out late Saturday night as the Lincoln Town Car crossed the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge on the south end of the bay.
 
The newlywed bride celebrating and four others perished from the fire and four women who escaped were seriously injured. 

The driver was not hurt.

San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault says the driver pulled over, got out, and saw the back of the 1999 Lincoln Town Car fully engulfed in flames.

By the time firefighters rushed to the scene and put out the fire, authorities found five badly burned bodies huddled near the partition that separates the driver from the passengers. Foucrault says other motorists helped three women get out of the rear right door, and a fourth woman managed to squeeze through the partition.

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

Relatives told the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News that one of the dead was 31-year-old Neriza Fojas, a registered nurse from Fresno who recently wed and was planning to travel to her native Philippines next month to hold another ceremony before family.

Fojas and her friends were on their way to the Crowne Plaza Hotel for her bridal shower, where her husband was waiting, according to the Chronicle.

Investigators trying to determine why the back of a stretch limousine burst into flames on a San Francisco Bay bridge, trapping and killing five women inside, say the vehicle was carrying too many passengers.

California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Maskarich said at a news conference on Monday that the vehicle was listed by the state Public Utilities Commission for eight or fewer passengers, but had nine. He did not comment on whether the overcrowding may have been a factor in the women's deaths.

Maskarich said the cause of the blaze remains under investigation.

Police will be counting on surviving victims to give their accounts leading up to the inferno. The flames reportedly spread so fast that the rest of the women sitting in the back of the limo had no time to escape.

Russell McGillicuddy, owner of Air One Limousine Service in San Jose, Calif., said the 1999 Lincoln Town car only had two doors in the back.

"It was an aged piece of equipment and I don't believe it had the extra door and they would have to climb over each other and exit through the rear doors," said McGillicuddy, who has no connection to the limo in question.

Friends fondly remembered Fojas as likeable and active.

"She was nice person, quiet and friendly," Roy Talagon said.

Ivy Savero said, "I always saw her in her Facebook that she's riding a bike … sometimes, I think, mountain climbing."

California Highway Patrol identified the surviving passengers as Mary Grace Guardiano, 42, of Alameda; Nelia Rafael Arellano, 36, of Oakland; Amalia P. Loyola, 48, of San Leandro; and Jasmine Desguia, 34, of San Jose.

Desguia and Loyola were listed in critical condition, a spokeswoman for Valley Medical Center told the AP. The condition of Arrellano, who was taken to another hospital, was unknown. Guardiano's condition is unclear.