A newlywed bride was celebrating a night out with friends when the limousine they were in erupted in flames on a San Francisco Bay bridge, killing the bride and four other women who were trapped inside and injuring four who escaped, authorities and her family said Sunday.
The driver, who was not hurt, told investigators he was driving the women on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge Saturday night when one of them complained of smoke inside the passenger compartment, San Mateo County coroner Robert Foucrault said.
He said he pulled over, got out, and saw the back of the 1999 Lincoln Town Car fully engulfed in flames, Foucrault said.
By the time firefighters rushed to the scene and put out the fire, authorities found five badly burned bodies huddled near the partition that separates the driver from the passengers.
"My guess would be they were trying to get away from the fire and use that window opening as an escape route," Foucrault said.
He said other motorists helped three women get out of the rear right door, and a fourth woman managed to squeeze through the partition.
Investigators didn't release details about the accident Sunday, but scheduled a news conference Monday.
The San Mateo Fire Department was looking into the cause of the fire, while the coroner's office was working with the California Highway Patrol to determine whether a crime occurred.
"We don't believe there is," Foucrault said.
Driver escaped unhurt
Relatives told the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News that one of the dead was Neriza Fojas, 31, a registered nurse from Fresno who recently wed and was planning to travel to her native Philippines next month to hold another ceremony before family. Her friends in the limousine were fellow nurses.
The driver said he picked the women up in Oakland and was taking them across the bridge to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City. Fojas's sister, Rosalyn Bersamin, told the Chronicle that after a night out on the town, Fojas and her friends were heading to the hotel to party with her husband.
"She was a hard worker, a loving sister," a sobbing Bersamin said.
Aerial video shot after the incident showed about one-third of the back half of the limousine had been scorched by the fire. Its taillights and bumper were gone and it appeared to be resting on its rims, but the remainder of the vehicle didn't appear to be damaged.
A photo taken by a witness and broadcast on KTVU-TV showed flames shooting from the back of the limo.
The driver — 46-year-old Orville Brown of San Jose — was the only person to escape unhurt.
Brown's brother told the Chronicle the flames spread before he could help the women escape.
"He told me, `Man, it was so fast.' He said, `I've never seen anything like it in my life."'
"He kept saying, `I should have done more, I should have done more," he added.
The brother said that Brown is an experienced commercial driver who has operated big rigs and moving trucks and has a clean record.
The bodies were so badly burned that medical examiners will have to identify the victims by using dental records. Foucrault said the autopsies will include toxicology tests, as well as examinations into whether any accelerant such as alcohol or gasoline was found on the bodies.
The four other women who escaped the fire, Mary G. Guardiano, 42, of Alameda; Jasmine Desguia, 34, of San Jose; Nelia Arrellano, 36, of Oakland; and Amalia Loyola, 48, of San Leandro, were being treated at nearby hospitals, the CHP said.
Desguia and Loyola were listed in critical condition, said Joy Alexiou, a spokeswoman for Valley Medical Center. The condition of Arrellano, who was taken to another hospital, was not known.
A spokeswoman for Community Medical Center in Fresno said one or more of its employees were in the limo.
The company that operated the limo was identified as Limo Stop, which offers service through limousines, vans and SUVs.
The company issued a statement saying it "will do everything possible to investigate and assist authorities in determining the cause of this fire in order to bring forth answers and provide closure to [the] victims and their families."
According to records from the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates limousine companies, Limo Stop is licensed and insured.