Grief and questions surround deadly limo fire
OAKLAND — Grief and disbelief reverberated from the Bay Area to the Central Valley on Monday as questions multiplied about a limousine fire that killed five women and injured four on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge.
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.
The Saturday night inferno trapped the women as they headed for what was to be a celebratory bridal party at a hotel.
“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.
“They were loved,” said hospital spokeswoman Mary Lisa Russell.
A neighbor at Fojas’ apartment complex said she often saw the exceptionally pretty woman holding hands with her husband as they walked their Maltese.
Fojas, 31, was planning a second wedding ceremony in June in the Philippines. Her parents, identified on Filipino television only as Carlito and Sonia, told a news program how they received a series of confusing phone calls that hinted at the tragedy.
They told “24 Oras” on the GMA 7 network that they ultimately learned of their daughter’s death through the media.
“What happened to my child?” Carlito said he asked his son-in-law, Carlo Moya, during a tearful Internet phone call.
“It’s painful. What happened is really painful. We were surprised,” Neriza’s mother said, crying.
In Oakland, a human resources manager at the Fruitvale Healthcare Center said staff members were too distraught to speak.
Nelia Arellano, 36, a Fruitvale nurse who is among the survivors, lives with her husband and toddler in a five-unit building across the street from the nursing home. Jasmin “Jazzy” de Guia, 34, a survivor whose condition was upgraded Monday from critical to serious, is also a nurse at the home.
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.
The limo driver, Orville 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. 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.
In an interview with San Francisco’s ABC7 News, Arellano sobbed uncontrollably and said Brown seemed to disregard her pleas when she first told him the limousine was filling with smoke and 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.”
She said she squeezed through the opening first and one friend managed to slip out behind her. She returned to help another, who screamed that she was stuck, and then returned again before a Good Samaritan held her back for her own safety.
“The man said, ‘You cannot go back any more,’ ” she said, weeping.
LimoStop’s vehicles are regularly maintained, said Brown, who officials said is licensed to drive them.
California Public Utilities Commission spokesman Christopher Chow said Monday that LimoStop received its permit in June 2006, carries liability insurance and operates seven vehicles, each licensed for a seating capacity of eight passengers. If the company willfully misrepresented the seating capacity to regulators, they could be penalized $7,500 per day of violation, he said, adding that the agency is “looking into that right now.”
The company has faced no previous enforcement action, he said.
Romney reported from Oakland and Redwood City, Marcum from Fresno.
Times staff writers Joseph Serna in Los Angeles and Maria L. La Ganga in San Francisco contributed to this report.
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