What was planned to be a happy night celebrating a friend’s wedding instead turned into a tragedy resulting in the deaths of five women who were riding in a stretch limousine over the San Francisco Bay. But because they could not tell their driver that the vehicle was on fire through a raised privacy partition, according to the Associated Press, a newlywed and four of her friends perished Saturday night in a vehicle fire on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge.
The women were part of a party celebrating a bridal shower for Neriza Fojas, 31, a nurse from Fresno, Calif.
Authorities have since released the names of all five women killed when a limousine burst into flames on a San Francisco Bay bridge.
The San Mateo County Coroner’s Office identified the victims on Tuesday as 35-year-old Michelle Estrera, of Fresno, 46-year-old Anna Alcantara and 43-year-old Felomina Geronga, both of Alameda, 31-year-old Neriza Fojas of Monterey and 39-year-old Jennifer Balon, also of Alameda.
The cause of deaths and toxicology reports are still pending. The Coroner’s Office says a final report could take another three to four weeks to complete.
The group was heading from Alameda, Calif., to a hotel in Foster City, to join Fojas’ new husband. However, when the limousine driver heard one of the women banging on the partition complaining of smelling smoke, he didn’t understand what she was trying to say.
“They had the music up in the back, and I figured she was asking, ‘Can I smoke?’ ” the Lincoln Town Car driver Orville Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I said, ‘The owner doesn’t allow smoking in the car, and we only have four minutes to the destination.’ ” Shortly after, the women banged on the partition again, which he rolled down to hear them screaming “smoke, smoke” and “pull over!”
Brown, who was uninjured, helped the four survivors to escape through the partition, but one of them ran to the back of the vehicle to open the passenger door, but by that time the limo was covered in flames. “I figured with all that fire that they were gone, man,” Brown said. “There were just so many flames. Within maybe 90 seconds, the car was fully engulfed.”
Motorists stopped their cars to help, but they were unable to save the women who were trapped inside. Once firefighters extinguished the blaze, they found the bodies of Fojas, and the others all clamoring to escape through the partition. “My guess would be they were trying to get away from the fire and use that window opening as an escape route,” San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault told the Associated Press. No criminal activity is believed to have occurred.
At a Monday news conference, California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Maskarich told reporters that the limousine was only supposed to carry eight or fewer passengers, according to the state Public Utilities Commission, but nine were in the vehicle. It is unclear whether or not the extra passenger was a factor in the deaths.
Four other women escaped and were taken to area hospitals for treatment, two in critical condition. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
All of the women in the party were fellow nurses who were there to celebrate Fojas’ recent nuptial. She was also planning to travel to the Philippines, her native country, to have another ceremony with her family.
Brown had been with the limousine company, San Jose-based Limo Stop, for two years and had been saving money to start a program for at-risk youths, the Chronicle reported. The company serves customers with limousines, vans and SUVs. Brown, who had years of experience as a commercial driver, now reportedly wants to quit driving, his brother, Lewis Brown Jr. told the Chronicle.
“We got out by the grace of God. I just wish that I could have done more,” Brown said. “It’s something you never imagine will happen.”