It was supposed to be a night of celebration, but it ended in tragedy.
As of Monday, California authorities still don’t know what caused a 1999 white Lincoln stretch limousine to burst into flames on a San Francisco bridge Saturday night, killing five women inside, including a new bride. Four other women in the car, as well as the driver, were able to escape.
“Every death has its own level of tragedy, but this is one of the more horrific death scenes we have investigated,” said San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault.
As family members grieve, the investigation is kicking into gear. “It is really going to take the experts from fire and mechanical to find out the true nature of the fire,” said California Highway Patrol Captain Mike Maskarich at a Monday press conference. “Our mission right now is fact finding…and if there are any legal or regulation issues. We still need to complete the vehicle inspection.”
The limousine was a couple hundred yards from the western end of the bridge when it went up in flames. Investigators do not believe the fire was started by a traffic accident. They’re looking to see if road debris or mechanical issues were a factor.
Maskarich said the limousine had nine passengers, one more than is legally allowed by the state Public Utilities Commission, but it is unclear if the overcrowding could have contributed to the women’s deaths.
Investigators plan on re-interviewing the driver, Orville Brown, who worked for LimoStop Inc., as well as examining his driving record, “It is something that we will look into,” Maskarich said, adding that it’s too early to tell if criminal charges will be filed.
The nine women, mostly nurses, were en route to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City for a bachelorette party when the limo went up in flames around 10 p.m. as it drove across the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge. The women, who were picked up in Oakland, included 31-year-old bride Neriza Fojas, a registered nurse at the Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno. Fojas had recently married in the United States, and was planning to return to the Philippines in mid-June for another wedding ceremony with her family.
Her husband was at the hotel waiting for her to arrive when the explosion occurred.
Brown, who was uninjured, told investigators he was driving when one of the women complained about smoke billowing out from back of the limo. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that he originally misunderstood what she said, thinking that she wanted to know if she could smoke.
Seconds later, Brown told the paper, the women knocked again, this time yelling, "Smoke, smoke!" and "Pull over."
“He pulled over and the back part of the vehicle was on fire,” said Foucrault. “I don’t know how quickly he was able to pull over the vehicle.” Foucrault said the driver stopped in the lane of traffic. “I don’t know how fast the fire spread,” he said. “The driver said he noticed there was smoke and the back portion of the vehicle was on fire.”
Three of the women somehow were able to escape through the rear passenger door while another woman squeezed through the small window partition that separated the driver from the passengers.
The women knocked again, this time yelling, “Smoke, smoke!”
Brown told the Chronicle that he helped some of the women out of the limo but was unable to reach the women in the back. "We got out by the grace of God. I just wish that I could have done more," he said to the paper. "It's something you never imagine will happen."
The other women may have attempted to squeeze through the small window into the driver's compartment, but it was too late. The women, all in their 30s and 40s, died in the flames. After firefighters put out the fire, they found five badly burned bodies huddled near the front window partition.
“I think they were trying to get away from the fire and there was a possibility they were trying to use that window to escape,” Foucrault. “But when we got there, there was no evidence that was actually happening. Based on the scene it didn’t give us any indication that the five people were trying to get out. They were huddled up and they were trying to get away from the fire.”
Foucrault said his office was notified within 15 minutes of the horrific blaze but had to wait close to two hours before they were able to transport the deceased to the coroner’s office. The vehicle was too hot for anyone to get inside.