REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (AP) -- A stretch limousine that burst into flames on a San Francisco Bay bridge, killing five women inside, was carrying one too many passengers, investigators said Monday.
The state Public Utilities Commission had authorized the vehicle to carry eight or fewer passengers, but it had nine on the night of the deadly fire, California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Maskarich said. He did not comment on whether the overcrowding may have been a factor in the deaths.
The cause of the blaze remains under investigation, and the vehicle has not yet been inspected, Maskarich said.
The Lincoln Town Car was packed with young women celebrating a girls’ night out with a newlywed bride when it went up in flames Saturday night on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge. The driver and four women were able to escape.
The newlywed woman was among the dead.
The driver, Orville Brown, said 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 compartment and complained about smelling smoke.
With the music turned 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 ( http://bit.ly/10jcd0t ).
He helped four of the surviving women escape through the partition. One of the women ran around to the passenger door on the back side of the limo, but by then it was engulfed in flames.
“When she opened that back door, I knew it wasn’t a good scene,” Brown said. “I figured with all that fire that they were gone, man. There were just so many flames. Within maybe 90 seconds, the car was fully engulfed.”
Two of the women who survived were in critical condition on Monday.
The five dead were found huddled near the partition, apparently unable to squeeze through.
“My guess would be they were trying to get away from the fire and use that window opening as an escape route,” said San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault.
Investigators were trying to determine what sparked the fire and whether any crime occurred. Foucrault said they doubted that the blaze involved criminal activity.
Relatives told the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News that one of the dead was Neriza Fojas, a 31-year-old registered nurse from Fresno who recently wed and was planning to travel to her native Philippines to hold another ceremony before family. Her friends in the limousine were fellow nurses.
Brown, 46, of San Jose, said he was taking the women across the bridge to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City. Fojas’ sister, Rosalyn Bersamin, told the Chronicle that after a night out on the town, Fojas and her friends were heading to the hotel to celebrate with her new husband.
“She was a hard worker, a loving sister,” a sobbing Bersamin said.
Aerial video shot after the fire showed about one-third of the back half of the limousine had been scorched. Its taillights and bumper were gone, and it appeared to be resting on its rims, but the remainder of the vehicle didn’t appear to be damaged.
A photo taken by a witness and broadcast on KTVU-TV showed flames shooting from the back of the limo.
Brown said he wishes he could have done more.
“It’s something you never imagine will happen,” he told the Chronicle. “It’s a limousine ride. It’s supposed to be a joyous thing.”
Brown said he is an experienced commercial driver who has operated airport shuttles and trucks.
He started driving for Limo Stop Inc. two months earlier and had put in about six shifts behind the wheel of the Town Car that caught fire, he said.
Medical examiners will identify the victims by using dental records. Foucrault said the autopsies will include toxicology tests, as well as examinations into whether any accelerant such as alcohol or gasoline was found on the bodies.
The CHP said the four other women who escaped the fire were being treated at nearby hospitals for burns and smoke inhalation: Mary G. Guardiano, 42, of Alameda; Jasmine Desguia, 34, of San Jose; Nelia Arrellano, 36, of Oakland; and Amalia Loyola, 48, of San Leandro.
Desguia and Loyola were listed in critical condition Monday, a spokeswoman for Valley Medical Center said. The condition of Arrellano, who was taken to another hospital, was not known.
A spokeswoman for Community Medical Center in Fresno said one or more of its employees were in the limo.
Limo Stop offers service through limousines, vans and SUVS. Records of the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates limousine companies, showed the company is properly licensed and insured.
The company issued a statement pledging to do “everything possible” to help determine the cause of the fire and “bring forth answers and provide closure” to victims and their families.