In March 2013 a stretch limousine caught fire just off a bridge in the San Francisco area. Four women and the driver escaped through the driver’s area, but five other women were trapped in the locked rear passenger compartment and died of smoke inhalation.
The California Highway Patrol fielded several 911 telephone calls from witnesses and one of their officers. Investigators said the fire was accidentally touched off by a failure of the car’s suspension system.
Five women who were killed Saturday evening after the stretch limousine they were riding to a bridal party burst into flames on a bridge over the San Francisco Bay tried to escape the inferno through the vehicle’s narrow partition, according to the driver.
Orville Brown, 46, sounded shaken as he described the horrific episode Brown said he heard commotion in the rear of the vehicle and thought one of the nine female passengers was asking him to pull over on the shoulder of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge so she could smoke a cigarette.
But Brown quickly realized that the woman was crying out for help as a fast-moving blaze and thick plumes of smoke engulfed the back half of the limousine.
“She said, ‘Smoke, smoke, smoke, smoke! Pull over, pull over, pull over, pull over!”
The women frantically tried to squeeze through the narrow partition behind the driver’s seat, according to Brown. “We were all in shock,” Brown said. “Scared, crying, frustrated."
Brown told the station that he managed to wrench three of the women through the divider, although the San Mateo County Coroner's Office said only one woman made it through the partition.
"My understanding is that three passengers got out the side back door on the driver's side and one made it out the passenger compartment window successfully to the driver's compartment," San Mateo Coroner Robert Foucrault told reporters.
Foucrault said the harrowing episode is one of the most tragic he has encountered.
"It's one of the worst fatalities that I've witnessed in the years I've been at this office," Foucrault told the station. "It's just the sheer realization that these people were trying to escape from inside the vehicle."
The five women who died in the blaze were discovered huddled near the front of the passengers' area, suggesting they had tried to escape through the partition, Foucrault said. They were “probably killed by the fire,” but the cause of death was not immediately confirmed, according to California Highway Patrol Officer Art Montiel.
Among those who perished was Neriza Fojas, 31, for whom the bridal shower was being thrown, according to NBCBayArea.com. Fojas was recently married in the United States but was planning to travel to her native Philippines to hold a ceremony in front of family next month. Eight of the women in the car were internationally sponsored nurses working in Oakland.
The four survivors sustained injuries including burns or smoke inhalation, Montiel said Sunday.
Authorities said the limo picked the women up in Oakland and was heading to the Crown Plaza Hotel when the vehicle erupted in flames. The CHP said the fire was first reported around 10 p.m. local time (1 a.m. ET) in the third lane of westbound state Highway 92.
The westbound lanes of the bridge, which connects San Mateo and Alameda counties, about 20 miles southeast of San Francisco, were closed for several hours Saturday night.
The California Highway Patrol announced Monday that the limousine was authorized to carry just "eight passengers or less" -- not nine. Investigators added that Brown was properly licensed to operate the vehicle. he thought "a limo could hold more than that, to be honest with you," and added, "I don't make the rules I'm just a driver."
Capt. Mike Maskarich told reporters that investigators are working to ascertain if any criminal wrongdoing occurred.
Investigators do not believe the fire resulted from a collision and will be looking into previous inspections to see if the limo had any prior issues.
LimoStop, Inc., the owner of the limo, said in a statement: "We are deeply saddened by the tragedy last night involving the young women, five of whom lost their lives in the limousine fire on the San Mateo Bridge."