REDWOOD CITY (CBS SF) -- Conflicting accounts emerged Monday from the driver and a surviving passenger as to exactly what happened when a stretch limousine burst into flames on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, killing five women and injuring four others. Investigators said it "could take several weeks" to figure out what ignited the fire, but one thing was clear: the vehicle was carrying too many passengers and the limo company faced a potential fine.
"This particular vehicle is listed with the (California Public Utilities Commission) for carrying eight or fewer passengers," said California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Maskarich, who did not comment at a news conference as to whether the overcrowding may have been a factor in the women's deaths.
The PUC later said it was considering whether to fine LimoStop Inc. a minimum of $7,500 for misrepresenting the limo's seating capacity, since it had nine passengers inside early Sunday morning when the deadly fire occurred. The agency said it was trying to determine if the company regularly exceeded capacity.
While the 1999 Lincoln Town Car was licensed for charter rides, it had not undergone any state inspections. The CHP only examines vehicles licensed to carry 10 or more passengers, which some in the transportation industry contend is a significant loophole that can be exploited by limo operators.
The Town Car's driver, Orville Brown, said he at first misunderstood what one of the passengers in the back of the limo was saying when she complained about smelling smoke during the ride over the bridge.
"I figured she was asking if she could smoke a cigarette. I said we only have four more minutes and the boss does not allow us to smoke in the limo. About 30 seconds pass, and I smell smoke, I look back, I smell smoke out of the back and I just saw the anguish and grief on her face," he explained in an interview that aired Monday evening on KPIX 5. "It was horrific. I never imagined something like this could happen."
But Nelia Arellano of Oakland, a survivor who was released from the hospital Monday, disputed Brown's version of events.
The Associated Press quoted the 36-year-old Arellano as saying that she yelled at Brown to stop the car, but he "didn't want to listen." She said when he did finally stop, contrary to his claims, he did nothing to help the women get out of the burning car. Brown was unhurt in the incident.
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San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault and Foster City Fire Chief Michael Keefe said the five women who died were apparently trapped in the vehicle which became engulfed in flames in about 90 seconds; their bodies were found huddled near the partition that separates the limo driver and passengers as the two rear passenger doors were quickly obstructed by fire.
"I could say they were getting away from the fire and that's why they were in the front towards the partition, you could also probably say that they were trying to get out as well," Foucrault told reporters at the CHP news conference.
Added Keefe: "We are devastated by this incident. Firefighters work hard everyday to help those who call us but despite our best efforts, our actions could not change the course of events that lead to this tragedy."
The nine women, a group of nurses, were traveling in the limo from Alameda to the Crown Plaza Hotel in Foster City for a bridal celebration for 31-year-old Philippine native and newlywed Neriza Fojas.
Fojas was among the deceased confirmed by KPIX 5, as were fellow nurses Michelle Estrera of Fresno, Jenni Balon of Dublin and Anna Alcantara of San Lorenzo.
The four women who managed to escape the burning car suffered smoke inhalation and burns; two remained listed in critical condition on Monday.
In addition to Arellano, the other injured victims were identified as 34-year-old Jasmine Deguia of San Lorenzo, 46-year-old Amalia Loyola of San Leandro, and 42-year-old Mary Grace Guardiano of Alameda.
The CHP's Maskarich said it would take a few weeks for investigators to piece together "some semblance of answers for the tragic events that just occurred."
In a statement sent to CBS San Francisco, the limousine company pledged it would cooperate fully with the probe.
"LimoStop Inc. will do everything possible to assist authorities in determining the cause of this fire in order to help bring forth answers and provide closure to the victims and their families," the statement read.
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