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Fire kept women from leaving burning limo through rear exits

Sister of isle woman, 4 others killed in Bay Area limo fire

By Martha Mendoza

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 05:55 p.m. HST, May 06, 2013

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. » First came the tapping. Over the blasting music, limo driver Orville Brown heard someone in the backseat crowd of partying women knock on the partition behind him, saying something about smoke. No smoking allowed, he told them.

Then the taps turned to urgent knocks, and someone screamed "Smoke, smoke" and "Pull over!"

In just a few fleeting moments, five of the women celebrating a girls' night out were killed by flames that overtook the luxury car with terrifying speed.

As smoke thickened in the passenger compartment, Brown pulled the white stretch limo to a stop on a bridge over San Francisco Bay and started pulling women out through the partition that separated him from his passengers.

Three good Samaritans, including a firefighter, stopped to help. The first woman who got out ran to the back and yanked open a door, but Brown said it was already too late.

"I knew it wasn't a good scene. 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."

From the first tap on the window until the rear of car became an inferno couldn't have taken more than three minutes, Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle (http://bit.ly/10jcd0t ).

Authorities searched for answers today, hoping to learn what sparked the blaze and why five of the victims could not escape the fast-spreading flames.

The women who were killed in the Saturday night blaze were found pressed up against the partition, apparently because smoke and fire kept them from the rear exits of the extended passenger compartment.

The position of the bodies suggested they were trying to get away from the fire, said San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault. His office planned to begin autopsies later Monday.

The women were celebrating the wedding of a newlywed friend, Neriza Fojas, who was among the dead.

A relative, Christina Kitts said today that Neriza Fojas lived in Hawaii while she reviewed for her nursing exam, then took a job in Oakland, Calif., for two years before moving to Fresno, where she had been a nurse at Community Regional Medical Center for a year.

Fojas had been married recently, said her sister, Rosalyn Bersamin, who currently lives in Hawaii. The couple were planning to travel to her native Philippines next month and hold another ceremony before her family June 19, Bersamin said.

After partying Saturday evening in the East Bay, Fojas and her friends were headed to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City for her bridal shower. Her husband was at the hotel, waiting for his bride.

“She was a hard worker, a loving sister,” a sobbing Bersamin said.

Four survivors were being treated at hospitals. They were identified as Jasmine Desguia, 34, of San Jose; Mary Guardiano, 42, of Alameda; Nelia Arrellano, 36, of Oakland; and Amalia Loyola, 48, of San Leandro.

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.

He said it was too early in the investigation to say whether overcrowding may have been a factor in the deaths. Investigators have conducted preliminary interviews with the survivors and the driver, but more in-depth interviews, as well as an inspection of the gutted vehicle, were still needed.

It will take a few weeks for investigators to piece together "some semblance of answers for the tragic events that just occurred," Maskarich said.

Debris or any other objects on the roadway do not appear to have been a factor, he said.

By the time the Foster City Fire Department reached the blaze, almost 12 minutes after the first 911 call, there was no hope of saving anyone.

"We are devastated by this incident," Foster City Fire Chief Michael Keefe said.

A spokeswoman for the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates limos, said Monday that the limo owner, a company called Limo Stop, is licensed and has shown evidence of liability insurance. The company has seven vehicles with a seating capacity of up to eight passengers listed with the CPUC. It has not been the target of any previous enforcement action. Limo Stop received its permit in June 9, 2006, the agency said.

The CPUC requires that all carriers have a preventive maintenance program and maintain a daily vehicle inspection report, said spokeswoman Terry Prosper. 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.

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 car maker 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 car maker, 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 Writer Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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aomohoa wrote:
Sounds like the driver only thought of himself. Now he has to live with being a coward! That is also an old Limo and I wonder if it was maintained properly. What a tragedy.
on May 5,2013 | 09:53AM
hanalei395 wrote:
I think this limo had only two passenger doors, one on each side, in the rear, where the fire started. And I don't think the driver could have done anything, and was helpless.
on May 5,2013 | 10:10AM
aomohoa wrote:
Some of them got out. You think he would have at least had burns trying.
on May 5,2013 | 11:35AM
al_kiqaeda wrote:
The poisonous smoke must have been overwhelming. What you saw on the outside of the car must have been multitudes of times worse in the car. Hard to judge the driver without being there.
on May 6,2013 | 10:45PM
aomohoa wrote:
Why couldn't they get out the rear doors? It makes no sense.
on May 5,2013 | 09:26PM
hanalei395 wrote:
I haven't seen the pic of the limo, but I think this was the type of limo with a U-shape seating with only two passenger doors in the rear. The fire was so intense, they were simply trapped. Poor women, out for a day of fun, then this.
on May 6,2013 | 05:07AM
al_kiqaeda wrote:
All limos should be equipped with SEVERAL window breaking hammers by the driver and mounted near windows. They are small hammers that have pointed heads that easily break safety glass and they only cost $5. Usually they also come with seatbelt cutters. Get one for your car too!
on May 6,2013 | 10:44PM
mrluke wrote:
Have you EVER been near an intense fire?? Probably not! Just an ignorant comment on your part. It seems as if he tried to help out.
on May 6,2013 | 07:13PM
Pocho wrote:
fire started in the back of the limo. Something fishy already
on May 5,2013 | 10:16AM
Kalaheo1 wrote:
Not necessarily. That's where the gas tank is.
on May 5,2013 | 11:28AM
Hawaiians wrote:
What a way to go.
on May 5,2013 | 12:10PM
hikine wrote:
Could be a leaking gas line and a spark to start the fire or the ladies were smoking and a cigarette ignited an alcoholic drink.
on May 5,2013 | 12:52PM
aomohoa wrote:
Horrifying way to go. I feel so sorry for the families and the groom.
on May 5,2013 | 07:53PM
aomohoa wrote:
Still don't understand why they couldn't get out the rear doors.
on May 5,2013 | 09:27PM
hikine wrote:
Could be the door locks were down and it doesn't automatically go up when you pull on the handle. The power door locks and windows must've stopped working when the fire occurred or the driver locked them.
on May 6,2013 | 02:38AM
cojef wrote:
Should had 2 sets of doors on each side. Having said that if electrical short caused the fire and the doors were driver controlled, the doors probably would not have opened. Possible solution is, if power is cut-off to driver contolled switch, door locks should automatically disengage thereby enabling passegers to manually open the doors. Lincoln was an old 1999 model with only 2 rear doors, ready for the scrap heap. Condolences to families of the deceased.
on May 6,2013 | 11:04AM
Readitnow wrote:
Story said that someone opened one of the doors and that's when the flames came into the limo. The back doors were too close to the gas tank to be opened. They either had to go through the partition, the sun roof (if there was one), or break a window. Bad situation to be in.
on May 6,2013 | 11:20AM
Mallory wrote:
sadly, the doors and sunroof were both at the rear of the limo, leaving no way to exit without breaking the partition or opening it between the driver and passenger compartments
on May 6,2013 | 01:11PM
iwanaknow wrote:
The lawyers will have a field day with this one.
on May 5,2013 | 09:19PM
aomohoa wrote:
Unfortunately that won't bring them back.
on May 5,2013 | 09:30PM
iwanaknow wrote:
Now the news say the limo was overloaded....too many passengers. There will be a settlement.........but sealed from the Public.
on May 6,2013 | 09:01AM
Skyler wrote:
Could have been electrical - maybe that's why the rear doors wouldn't open?
on May 5,2013 | 11:49PM
TuTuUi wrote:
i agree with hikine...cigarettes sparked the flame...will see what investigators say.
on May 6,2013 | 01:31AM
paradiddle wrote:
Condolences and prayers to the family and friends of all those affected by his horrific tragedy.
on May 6,2013 | 06:27AM
loquaciousone wrote:
What's in a number? Nine asian women don't take as much space as nine football players.
on May 6,2013 | 09:53AM
WKAMA wrote:
Metal lying on the bridge could have punctured the gas tank. Similar situation happened to the Air France SS a few years ago.
on May 6,2013 | 10:22AM
Cubsfan wrote:
so the fire started because they had one too many people in? Great headline
on May 6,2013 | 10:44AM
nodaddynotthebelt wrote:
A really sad and tragic story. One thing that is not mentioned in the whole story and in a previous breaking article is the name of the husband. You would think the husband would be important enough to mention in the story. He will probably be interviewed in an upcoming story.
on May 6,2013 | 11:16AM
hikine wrote:
Over crowding has the connotation that the women were at fault. One person over the limit is not over crowding.
on May 6,2013 | 11:37AM
kennie1933 wrote:
One thing that might come out of all of this is configuring limos to have more exits than just the rear doors....perhaps windows that can pop out (without power needed) in emergencies such as this one. You never really know what can happen until it does. This was a "perfect" disaster....fire in the rear and the only exit door also in the rear. This is why buildings require at least two exits not adjacent to each other in case fire blocks one exit.
on May 6,2013 | 11:51AM
WKAMA wrote:
Is that why the limo went up in flames because of being overcrowded with one extra person? Unless it's spontaneous combustion with the heat of one extra person. Media should look for the real cause instead of making a big deal out of the extra person.
on May 6,2013 | 11:59AM
OnlyChrist wrote:
May they rest in peace.
on May 6,2013 | 12:38PM
HawaiiCheeseBall wrote:
Yep, the only thing that can be said now. Condolences to the families. Everything else in this comments section is just speculation.
on May 6,2013 | 01:17PM
RetiredWorking wrote:
Agree with hawaiiCheese. So sad. My heart goes out to them all.
on May 6,2013 | 09:01PM
Publicbraddah wrote:
Overcrowding does not cause a vehicle to explode in flames. Something else caused it.
on May 6,2013 | 12:44PM
HAJAA1 wrote:
I just cannot comprehend this story. It is amazing that five human beings could not get out of that car in time. Very curious, and extremely sad.
on May 6,2013 | 01:04PM
al_kiqaeda wrote:
The partition might have been very small and who's to say one of the women might have been large. Plus the smoke from burning plastic and foam would have overcome them very very quickly. The car was fully engulfed in three minutes...they were dead or unconscious before then. I feel horrible for the ladies and for their families...in particular for the groom. God Bless them all.
on May 6,2013 | 10:32PM
DeltaDag wrote:
Too late now, but yelling "fire" instead of "smoke" might've saved a precious few seconds alerting the driver. At home, in a vehicle or a public builiding, to attract attention it's best to yell "fire" and damn the consequences if it turns out to be a false alarm in a doubtful situation.
on May 6,2013 | 01:29PM
entrkn wrote:
Limos have become dinosaurs... they used to be the choice of celebrities and VIPs for special events but these days most celebs and VIPs choose other types of more contemporary vehicles most of the time... and the passenger doors on limos are back by the rear seat and trunk... it was a death trap in a fire that started in the back of the car.
on May 6,2013 | 08:28PM
al_kiqaeda wrote:
Yeah, they are very uncomfortable. I like those luxury limo vans. Headroom is cool!
on May 6,2013 | 10:33PM
residenttaxpayer wrote:
It's amazing that most cars don't have a extinguisher in case of fire....all my cars have two good size extinguishers that can be utilized to help prevent this type of tragedy.
on May 7,2013 | 12:26AM
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