The driver of a limousine involved in a deadly fire on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge said he first thought his passengers wanted to smoke a cigarette when they told him there was smoke in the back of the car.
Orville Brown told the Associated Press he misunderstood one of the passengers when she said she smelled smoke.
Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle that over the loud music, he thought she said she wanted to smoke, only to realize what was happening seconds later when she knocked on the partition again, screaming, “Smoke, smoke!” and “Pull over!”
One of the women who climbed through the partition ran to the passenger door to let her friends out, but by then the car was swallowed in flames, Brown told the AP.
"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."
Five women died in the fire, which erupted Saturday night on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge. The victims tried to climb through the partition to escape the flames, officials said.
But the fire, which reportedly started at the rear of the car, moved too fast, authorities said.
"It was almost impossible for them to get out as the fire was moving so fast," said San Mateo County County Coroner Robert Foucrault.
He said the women's bodies were found near the partition at the front of the limousine, where they tried to climb through the small window area and escape.
The Foster City Fire Department's arson division is investigating, and authorities said it could take days to determine what started the blaze.
Foucrault said Brown, a driver with LimoStop Inc., picked up nine women in Oakland on Saturday evening and was hired to drop them off about 40 miles away at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City for a bachelorette party.
The women were all riding in the passenger section of the limo when they noticed smoke coming from the back of the 1999 Lincoln Town Car, Foucrault said. They alerted Brown, who pulled over on the side of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge.
When he got out of the limo to inspect the vehicle, he noticed the rear was engulfed in flames, Foucrault said. Three of the women managed to escape through the rear passenger door. Another squeezed through the partition that separated the driver from the passengers, he said.
Two of the surviving passengers -- Jasmin De Guia, 34, of San Jose and Amalia Loyola, 48, of San Leandro -- were taken to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. They were being treated for smoke inhalation and burns and were listed in critical condition.
Two other passengers -- Nelia Arellano, 36, of Oakland and Mary Grace Guardiano, 42, of Alameda -- were taken to Stanford Medical Center. They were treated for moderate burns and smoke inhalation, authorities said. Their conditions are unknown.
Brown, 46, of San Jose was uninjured. Foucrault said he was "pretty distraught."
All the women involved were nurses.
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