Bay Area Limo Fire: Details Emerge in Nurse’s Bridal Party Tragedy

A limousine turned into a deathtrap for a group of nurses celebrating a bridal shower, leaving the driver haunted about what more he could have done to save his passengers

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Jane Tyska / AP

San Mateo County firefighters and California Highway Patrol personnel investigate the scene of a limousine fire on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in Foster City, Calif., on May 4, 2013.

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!”

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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.”

(MORE: Police: 5 to 15 People Killed in Texas Explosion)

22 comments
Bertzkii
Bertzkii

A claimed that the driver helped the four survivors to escape through the partition is a total lie.One of the survivors spoke- up and said, he has done nothing but save himself.At the CNN interview,he said he panicked and spent 5 minutes trying to call 911 instead of acting quickly by opening the door of the back door of limousine.What a moron!!!!!!!!

MikeSP
MikeSP

I hope investigators examine for the possiblity that a person in another vehicle shot the back of the limo, causing it to explode and/or catch on fire...if i were investigating this, i would examine the back of the limo for bullet holes...i've done a check on recall issues for 1999 linclon limo's and they have not had any recall issues that would cause a fire in the back of the vehicle...

Nazonohito
Nazonohito like.author.displayName 1 Like

@MikeSP You've been watching too many Hollywood movies. In real life, shooting the back of a car doesn't magically cause it to burst into flame. (Unless it's a Pinto =P ).

concerndcitizen
concerndcitizen like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

The driver sounds like he just gave up. He should have  kept trying to pull people out through the front. If the doors were locked from the inside, this is an outrage that should be illegal. Sounds like a very cowardly person.

vickster
vickster like.author.displayName 1 Like

@concerndcitizen not necessarily. The limo was already smoking before he pulled over, which means it was already on fire. He says that within 90 seconds the car was fully engulfed...and it seemed like the fire started from the back, which is where they were all sitting. The fire probably spread pretty quickly once it had started, as the driver said they were screaming right before he pulled over. The story says that he helped 4 of the women escape, and it's likely the fire just spread so quickly that it was impossible to get everyone out.

colesa2011
colesa2011

@vickster @concerndcitizen  

The driver claimed that he helped 4 women escape but conflicting reports say that 1 woman climbed through the partitioning window and 3 women escaped through the rear doors as they were helped by other motorists once the limo had stopped 30 to 1 minute after the passengers urged the driver to stop the vehicle because of smoke coming from the trunk of the limo.

Such spread of fire is likely to have been caused by a leak in the rear fuel line or fuel tank of the limo.


sosad
sosad like.author.displayName 1 Like

This is heartbreaking. If ever there was a group of individuals who are trained to observe, formulate a plan of action and save lives, it would be RN's.  One of the survivors who escaped through the interior partition ran to open the back door to rescue her friends. She acted purposefully and without becoming overcome by fear - qualities demonstrated by RN's every single day.  Please tell me why the driver did not immediately attempt to do  this himself, or why he did not have a fire extinguisher or window breaking hammer at his disposal? Please tell me why the driver would think a group of nurses would want to smoke in his limo? I guess he didn't spend much time thinking about the type of passengers who he had the privilege of transporting.   My prayers go out to the family, friends, coworkers and patients who loved these women. 

colesa2011
colesa2011 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@sosad 

No call to 911, no windshield breaker tool, no fire extinguisher....simply unequipped and not trained to help their high-paying passengers in the event of emergencies.

Reports have already surfaced in that the driver was negligent for allowing 9 passengers in his limo when 8 passengers is the maximum limit.  He ignored the passengers' initial plea to stop the limo due to all the smoke coming from inside the rear trunk of the limo.  He failed to pull over and stop in a timely manner.  And he admitted to not doing enough to help and watched his passengers choke to death with his already-defeated expression of...

 "I figured with all that fire that they were gone, man"

 The driver will likely be charged with involuntary manslaughter.

chejoubert
chejoubert

@colesa2011 @sosad  I have never been able to believe how many people accept things like 'privacy partitions' as average, normal, safe innovations for public use. Privacy partitions are dangerous, and defy all car safety consciousness. And have you noticed in the case of so many 'emergency' situations someone was there who stupidly and dully simply accepted unsafe conditions, and even later makes moronic statements that show complete apathy regarding safety?  I saw the same thing when raising children - especially men often did dangerous things with children and did not in any way care or grasp the issues. 

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

@sosadIt sounded to me like he was helping women out through the partition. But we don't know that.

An how the heck is the driver supposed to know the women are nurses? Were they wearing their scrubs? Did they tell him?


Maybe it was his fault, and maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was the passenger's fault, and maybe it wasn't. But the one thing we do know is that you're the type of person that jumps to conclusions.

sosad
sosad like.author.displayName 1 Like

Mr Goat...please forgive me for implying that the driver should have taken a personal interest in his passengers, you know, inquiring about their lives or why he was transporting them. I guess that would be too much to ask. My remarks are based on the drivers self reporting of his actions. He didn't listen the first time the nurses asked for help. He made an assumption. A deadly one. You can berate me til the cows come home but I will never back down in my respect for nurses, and my belief that this was a preventable tragedy.

kat23
kat23

@mtngoatjoe @sosad

Wow- I'm not quite sure how this went from all these poor women dying a HORRIFIC death to criticizing nurses (who are only human). No nurses aren't perfect nor do I think 'sosad' was implying that. What I think the implication was, similar to nurses, this limo driver has other peoples lives in his hands on a daily basis and should be trained or prepared for worst case scenarios. Obviously any person that doesn't deal with high intensity situations on a daily basis would probably panic, so to him calling 911 made sense at that point and time. I doubt any limo driver plans on going home at night knowing 5 people just died while "in his hands". I definitely think this limo service (perhaps not just the driver himself) was unprepared for an emergency situation, which sadly lead to the death of all these innocent women. I can only hope it leads to safety changes among limo services across the board. God bless these familes.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

@sosadYour reverence for nurses is laudable, but ultimately naive. Nurses aren't perfect. Many are great people, but not all. An acquaintance told me about how she stole painkillers from patients after surgery. She said she wasn't the only nurse to do this. Should I jump to the conclusion that all nurses are bad?

You weren't there. You don't know what happened.

Hopefully the people who investigate this are more interested in the truth than jumping to conclusions.

-Mr. Goat

Ps. The painkiller stealing nurse is still a nurse. It just goes to show that there are few absolutes in this world.

terrylenwest
terrylenwest

Maybe he was Phillipino too? FYI nurses smoke like chimneys.