Limo fire took 3 minutes to claim 5 lives

2013-05-07 10:10
San Mateo County firefighters and California Highway Patrol personnel investigate the scene of a limousine fire on the westbound side of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in Foster City, California. (Jane Tyska AP/Oakland Tribune-Bay Area News Group)

San Mateo County firefighters and California Highway Patrol personnel investigate the scene of a limousine fire on the westbound side of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in Foster City, California. (Jane Tyska AP/Oakland Tribune-Bay Area News Group)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Redwood City — First came the tapping. Over the blasting music, limousine 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, including a newlywed bride from the Philippines.

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."

Search for answers

From the first tap on the window until the rear of the car became an inferno couldn't have taken more than three minutes, Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Authorities searched for answers on 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 90cm by 45cm opening in the 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 Centre in Fresno. The remaining three victims have not been identified.

Outstanding nurses

In the Philippines, Neriza Fojas' mother, Sonya, broke into tears during an interview with local TV network GMA News in northern Tarlac province, where the family lives. The news report said she learned of the tragedy from media reports.

"How painful, how painful what happened," she said.

US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jnr expressed condolences to the Fojas family in a Twitter message.

The medical centre's CEO, Jack Chubb, said in a statement on 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."

A relative of Fojas said the young nurse was preparing to get her master's degree and was planning a large second wedding in the Philippines.


Christina Kitts said Monday that Fojas lived in Hawaii while she reviewed for her nursing exam, then took a job in Oakland for two years before moving to Fresno, where she had been a nurse at Community Regional Medical Centre for a year.

Three survivors hospitalised were identified as Jasmine Desguia, aged 34, of San Jose; Mary Guardiano, aged 42, of Alameda; and Amalia Loyola, aged 48, of San Leandro.

Nelia Arellano, aged 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 finally did 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 smouldering for days," he said, noting there was no explosive boom.

California Highway Patrol Commander Mike Maskarich said the state Public Utilities Commission had authorised 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 spokesperson Terrie Prosper said on Monday that the agency was looking into whether the operator of the limo, a licensed company called Limo Stop, wilfully misrepresented the seating capacity to the agency. If so, Limo Stop could be penalised $7 500 for each day it was in violation.

The CPUC requires that all carriers have a preventive maintenance programme 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 programme, she said.

Prosper said requirements for emergency exits only apply to buses, and limousines are not required to have fire extinguishers.

Joan Claybrook, the top federal auto-safety regulator under President Jimmy Carter, said the stretch limousine industry is poorly regulated because the main agency that oversees car safety doesn't have enough money to prioritise investigating the small businesses that modify limos after they leave the assembly line.


"I think the oversight is pretty lousy, because the modifications are so individualistic, and there are not that many companies out there that do this. Mostly, they are mom-and-pop operations," said Claybrook, a former administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who previously led consumer group Public Citizen.

Instead, the agency tends to focus more on problems with new cars and major recalls, she said.

US 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.

Many older models such as the 1999 Lincoln Town Car that caught fire on Saturday were modified after they left the factory, said Jerry Jacobs, who owns a boutique limousine company in San Rafael with a fleet that includes two stretch limos.

"There is nothing wrong with having these older models on the road. Many have low mileage and immaculate interiors because we take care of them. But when these cars start getting older and the rubber boots wear out, they start running hot," Jacobs said. "The key is you have to keep doing all the right maintenance to make sure they're running smoothly."

Read more on:    us

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.
NEXT ON NEWS24X publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
1 comment
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.