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Fire survivor says limousine driver did 'not want to listen'

Human Interest

A survivor of the Bay Area limousine fire that killed five women said one of her friends got stuck trying to escape and that the limo’s driver initially ignored pleas for help.

In an interview with San Francisco's ABC7 News, Nelia Arellano sobbed uncontrollably and said limo driver Orville Brown seemed to disregard her pleas when she first told him the limousine was filling with smoke, and that he then did nothing to help.

"He doesn't want to listen," cried Arellano, who said she was telling him, "There is already a fire. Stop the car, stop the car."

PHOTOS: Fatal limo fire

The Saturday night fire trapped the women in the rear of the limousine as they headed for what was to be a celebratory bridal party at a hotel.

Arellano, 36, said she squeezed through the partition separating the rear of the vehicle from the driver’s area first and that one friend managed to slip out behind her.

She said she returned to help another woman who was screaming that she was stuck, and then returned again before a passerby held her back for her own safety.

"The man said, 'You cannot go back any more,'" Arellano said, weeping.

Brown told CNN on Monday the fire escalated when one survivor managed to open a rear door from the outside.

"Everything happened so fast," said Brown, 46. "When that back door opened, it just burst into flames."

Brown, who works for LimoStop Inc., had picked up the women in Alameda and was taking them to a Foster City hotel.

"Everybody was joyous," Brown said. "Beautiful ladies, beautiful occasion."

As the limo drove west over the bridge, he said he heard a knock on the glass partition.

The woman said "smoke," Brown said. He said he assumed she was asking if she could smoke a cigarette, and told her the company's policy prohibits that. About 30 seconds later, he said she knocked again.

"I just saw the anguish, grief on her face," Brown said. "I started smelling smoke and started seeing smoke."

Brown said he stopped the car on the Hayward-San Mateo Bridge. By then, the glass window on the partition was down and the women were trying to crawl through it to safety. San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said the five dead victims were found "basically on top of each other, kind of huddled" near the partition.

Although officials said they had yet to review the limousine's maintenance record or examine its burned-out shell, California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Maskarich said the 1999 Lincoln Town Car was licensed to carry only eight passengers, though nine were inside.

"Any time we have a significant loss of life, it's very difficult, but given the particular nature of what's transpired, it's just beyond words," Maskarich said.

The women were originally from the Philippines, including eight nurses who were either working or had worked at the Fruitvale Healthcare Center, a nursing home in Oakland.

The San Mateo County coroner worked to match dental records provided by family members with X-rays of the remains before releasing names. But a Fresno hospital confirmed that two of the dead victims worked there on a close-knit surgical trauma team.

Neriza Fojas, who had recently married and was the guest of honor Saturday, and Michelle Estrera were "exemplary nurses who dedicated their lives to helping others," Community Regional Medical Center said in a statement.

Fojas, 31, was planning a second wedding ceremony in June in the Philippines.

In Oakland, a human resources manager at the Fruitvale Healthcare Center said staff members were too distraught to speak.

"Jazzy" de Guia, 34, a survivor whose condition was upgraded Monday from critical to serious, is a nurse at the home along with Arellano.

Survivors Amalia Loyola, 48, and Mary Grace Guardiano, 42, are former employees. Loyola's condition was also upgraded to serious Monday, and like De Guia, she was being treated at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Guardiano and Arellano were reportedly taken to Stanford Medical Center where they were treated for more minor injuries.

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