Limo driver, survivor views differ on fatal fire
REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — As smoke thickened and a fire grew in the back of a limousine, Nelia Arellano desperately tried to squeeze through a 3 foot by 1 1/2-foot partition.
Stuck for a moment, Arellano made her way into the front seat. Three of her friends quickly followed. Five others didn't make it. Their bodies were later found pressed against the partition.
Arellano said in an interview Monday with KGO-TV that she believes the driver, Oliver Brown, could have done more to help during the fire, which took place Saturday night on one of the busiest bridges on San Francisco Bay.
"When he stop the car, he get out from the car, he just get out from the car," she said.
Arellano and other women had started the night celebrating the recent wedding of Neriza Fojas and were headed across the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge to a hotel in Foster City.
Brown, a San Jose man who worked for the limo company the past two months, has said in interviews that one of the passengers tapped on the partition behind him, saying something about smoke as music blared from the back. No smoking was allowed, he told them.
Then the taps turned to urgent knocks, and someone screamed "Pull over!"
Brown said he stopped on the bridge as soon as he could. Then he helped pull the women out through the partition, he said.
One of the women who made it through the partition ran to the back and yanked open a door, but Brown said that provided oxygen to the fire and the rear of the limo became engulfed in flames.
Brown said he believed it was an electrical fire.
"It could have been smoldering for days," he told KGO on Monday, noting there was no explosive boom.
Authorities searched for answers Monday, hoping to learn what sparked the blaze and why five of the victims killed Saturday night couldn't escape.
The position of the bodies at the partition suggested they were trying to get away from the fire, San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said.
Fojas, 31, a registered nurse from Fresno, was planning to travel to her native Philippines to hold another wedding ceremony with relatives. Her friends in the limousine were fellow nurses.
Fojas was among the five killed. Her mother, Sonya, broke into tears during an interview in the Philippines with local TV network GMA News.
"How painful, how painful what happened," she said.
The U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Harry Thomas Jr., on Tuesday expressed condolences to the Fojas family.
"Mystery surrounds deadly limo fire," he said in a Twitter message. "Condolences to the Fojas family in the Philippines and the U.S. and other nurses."
Fojas and another woman who died, Michelle Estrera, were nurses at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno. The remaining three victims haven't been identified.
The medical center's CEO, Jack Chubb, said in a statement Monday that Fojas and Estrera were outstanding nurses, loved by their patients, colleagues and staff.
"Both were good friends, stellar nurses and excellent mentors who served as preceptors to new nurses," he said.
A relative of Fojas said the young nurse was preparing to get her master's degree.
Christina Kitts said Monday that Fojas lived in Hawaii while she reviewed for her nursing exam, then took a job in Oakland for two years before moving to Fresno about a year ago.
Three survivors hospitalized were identified as Jasmine Desguia, 34, of San Jose; Mary Guardiano, 42, of Alameda; and Amalia Loyola, 48, of San Leandro. Arellano, 36, of Oakland, was treated and released.
California Highway Patrol Commander Mike Maskarich said the state Public Utilities Commission had authorized the vehicle to carry eight or fewer passengers, but it had nine on the night of the deadly fire. Maskarich said it was too early in the investigation to say whether overcrowding may have been a factor.
State PUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said Monday that the commission is looking into whether the operator of the limo, Limo Stop, willfully misrepresented the seating capacity to the agency. If so, Limo Stop could be penalized $7,500 for each day it was in violation.
Limo Stop is licensed and has shown evidence of liability insurance, Prosper said. The company has seven vehicles with a seating capacity of up to eight passengers listed with the commission, and it has not been the target of any previous enforcement action.
The CPUC requires that all carriers have a preventive maintenance program and maintain a daily vehicle inspection report, Prosper said. Carriers also certify that they are have or are enrolled in a safety education and training program, she said.
Prosper said requirements for emergency exits only apply to buses, and limousines are not required to have fire extinguishers.
Joan Claybrook, the top federal auto-safety regulator under President Jimmy Carter, said the stretch limousine industry is poorly regulated because the main agency that oversees car safety doesn't have enough money to prioritize investigating the small businesses that modify limos after they leave the assembly line.
"I think the oversight is pretty lousy, because the modifications are so individualistic, and there are not that many companies out there that do this. Mostly, they are mom-and-pop operations," said Claybrook, a former administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who previously led consumer group Public Citizen.
Instead, the agency tends to focus more on problems with new cars and major recalls, she said.
U.S. Department of Transportation data shows five people died in three separate stretch limo accidents in 2010, and 21 people died in another three stretch limo accidents in 2011.
Stretch limos are typically built in two ways.
In the first process, one carmaker builds the limousine's body then another company customizes or stretches the vehicle.
The second company has to issue a certification that the car meets National Highway Traffic Safety Administration safety standards for new vehicles, and that all safety equipment is working as required before it can be sold to the public, said Henry Jasny, an attorney with the Washington-based nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
In the second process, a customer buys the limousine directly from the carmaker then takes it to be customized. But modifying the car after it has been sold is considered a retrofit, so is not something NHTSA would regulate, Jasny said.
Many older models such as the 1999 Lincoln Town Car that caught fire Saturday were modified after they left the factory, said Jerry Jacobs, who owns a boutique limousine company in in San Rafael with a fleet that includes two stretch limos.
"There is nothing wrong with having these older models on the road. Many have low mileage and immaculate interiors because we take care of them. But when these cars start getting older and the rubber boots wear out, they start running hot," Jacobs said. "The key is you have to keep doing all the right maintenance to make sure they're running smoothly."
Associated Press writers Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco and Gosia Wozniacka in Fresno contributed to this report.