A stretch limousine that burst into flames on a San Francisco Bay bridge, killing five women inside, was carrying one too many passengers, investigators said Monday.
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, California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Maskarich said. He did not comment on whether the overcrowding may have been a factor in the deaths.
The cause of the blaze remains under investigation, and the vehicle has not yet been inspected, Maskarich said.
The Lincoln Town Car was packed with young women celebrating a girls’ night out with a newlywed bride when it went up in flames Saturday night on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge. The driver and four women were able to escape. The newlywed woman was among the dead.
The driver, Orville Brown, helped four of the surviving women escape through the limo’s partition. One of the women ran around to the passenger door on the backside of the limo, but by then it was engulfed in flames.
“When she opened that back door, I knew it wasn’t a good scene,” Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I figured with all that fire that they were gone, man. There were just so many flames. Within maybe 90 seconds, the car was fully engulfed.”
The five dead were found huddled near the partition, apparently unable to squeeze through. They have not yet been identified.
“My guess would be they were trying to get away from the fire and use that window opening as an escape route,” said San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault.
Firefighters arrived within minutes and extinguished the blaze. Investigators have done preliminary interviews with survivors and the driver but need to re-interview them, Maskarich said. The investigation was expected to take several weeks to complete, he added.
Two of the survivors were still hospitalized Monday in critical condition.
Relatives told the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News that one of the dead was Neriza Fojas, a 31-year-old registered nurse from Fresno who recently wed and was planning to travel to her native Philippines to hold another ceremony before family. Her friends in the limousine were fellow nurses.
Brown, 46, of San Jose, said he was taking the women 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 celebrate with her new husband.
“She was a hard worker, a loving sister,” a sobbing Bersamin said.
Brown said he wishes he could have done more.
“It’s something you never imagine will happen,” he told the Chronicle. “It’s a limousine ride. It’s supposed to be a joyous thing.”