Limo fire: Grief at Oakland nursing home where victims worked

An Oakland nursing home was reeling Monday as staff and residents assessed the magnitude of their loss: Eight of the nurses involved in a deadly limousine fire had ties to the home. Four of them were killed.

Officials at the Fruitvale Healthcare Center said two of the dead and two of the injured were still working there, and two others who were killed and two others who were injured were former employees.

“We are still in the process of learning the facts and circumstances surrounding this horrific event,” the center’s spokeswoman, Annaliese Impink, wrote in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of these employees and other members of the Fruitvale Healthcare family.”


PHOTOS: Fatal limo fire

The nursing home has arranged for counseling for workers. Management kept reporters at bay Monday, as three weeping women carrying flowers entered the building.

Human resource manager Darcie Allen said no one was prepared to talk publicly.

“We’re focusing on our employees and our residents today,” she said.

The low-slung nursing home sits just across the street from a five-unit apartment building built in 1929 that Nelia Arellano, among the survivors, calls home. Jasmin “Jazzy” De Guia, who was listed in critical condition Sunday at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, is also a nurse there, according to her Facebook page.

That means the two other injured survivors--Amalia Loyola and Mary Grace Guardiano--are former employees.

Guardiano was released Sunday night from Stanford Medical Center. Loyola was at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in critical condition Sunday. Arellano was taken to Stanford after the incident and her condition was not released.

Neriza Fojas, the Fresno nurse whose bridal shower the women were celebrating when their limo caught fire Saturday on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, used to live with Arellano and also worked at the nursing home a stone’s throw away.

Identities of the other women who died were still unknown, though all the families of those presumed dead have provided dental X-rays to the San Mateo County Coroner to help with identification.

A California Highway Patrol official said Monday the limousine was authorized to transport eight passengers but was carrying nine.

The 1999 Lincoln Town Car is regulated by the state Public Utilities Commission, CHP Capt. Mike Maskarich said at a news conference in Redwood City.

He said the regulatory mandates would be explored as part of a larger investigation into the fire that engulfed the car.

Maskarich and Foster City fire officials, who are assisting in the investigation, declined to elaborate on a possible cause or origin of the blaze, saying they have yet to review the vehicle’s maintenance records, conduct more thorough interviews with the driver and survivors, or explore any potential recalls or other mechanical issues known to be associated with the model.

They said they did not yet know whether the stretch limo’s two doors could be opened from the inside or whether there was a fire extinguisher on-board.

Most if not all the passengers were nurses originally from the Philippines and were celebrating a bridal shower of one of the women, who planned to return to the Philippines for a second ceremony next month.

Five perished, including the bride, and four were injured.

San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said he expects to release the names of the dead late Monday or Tuesday.

The investigation into the cause of death will involve toxicology reports and take weeks to conclude, though the primary cause in cases such as this one is often smoke inhalation, he said.

Maskarich and Foucrault said the incident was the worst they’ve seen in decades of work.

“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,” said Maskarich, who said trauma counseling had been made available to all responders.

Foucrault said there was a floor-to-ceiling partition behind the driver with a glass window that opened. The deceased were “basically on top of one another, kind of huddled” below the window, indicating they were trying to flee the flames and get out.

Three good Samaritans stopped to help, among them an off-duty CHP sergeant, but were unable to free the women trapped behind the partition, Maskarich said.

The driver 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, Foucrault said.

The women were 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 the driver, who pulled over on the side of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge.

When he got out of the limo to inspect the vehicle, he saw the rear was engulfed in flames, Foucrault said earlier. 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.

Driver Orville Brown, 46, of San Jose was not injured.


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