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Limo driver, survivor views differ on fatal fire

By Garance Burke & Martha Mendoza

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 05:54 a.m. HST, May 07, 2013

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., today 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 husband of a third victim, Jenni Balon, 39, identified her to the San Francisco Chronicle.

John Balon, 38, said their 10-year-old daughter cries for her mother at night and is still working on paintings to give her for Mother's Day. His daughter and 1-year-old son are still looking for their mother, he said.

He told his daughter that she is in heaven.

"I told her mom doesn't want us to worry a lot," he told the Chronicle. "She is happy there. She won't be happy if we worry."

The other two victims have not 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.

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bodysurf_ah wrote:
This comment has been deleted.
on May 7,2013 | 05:09AM
BigErn wrote:
Sounds like you were there. Are you gonna tell the authorities what you saw?
on May 7,2013 | 06:02AM
jakwa wrote:
Well, the one survivor was and I believe her story...
on May 7,2013 | 06:27AM
Kaialemichi wrote:
Shell shock ... He gotta live with it ...
on May 7,2013 | 06:57AM
aomohoa wrote:
He should do more than live with it, he should be prosecuted for it. I believe the girls that he just left them. Were there emergency flashers on this limo? He should have stopped immediately and got them out.
on May 7,2013 | 08:17AM
kk808 wrote:
Any police officer will probably tell you that multiple witnesses to an incident will give you various accounts of what happened. How clearly does one think when panic sets in? What does one remember after a very traumatic incident?
on May 7,2013 | 10:54AM
aomohoa wrote:
Three minutes is a long time to get people out if you act quickly and not ignore the situation.
on May 7,2013 | 12:43PM
RetiredWorking wrote:
"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" An excerpt from the above article, from a survivor who WAS there.
on May 7,2013 | 06:30AM
Ewaduffer wrote:
Show me the money!!!!
on May 7,2013 | 06:59AM
IAmSane wrote:
on May 7,2013 | 08:20AM
AmbienDaze wrote:
this knuckhead limo driver should have been pedaling a stretch bicycle instead..
on May 7,2013 | 08:26AM
aomohoa wrote:
This limo driver was trying to turn his life around after a criminal record. I have a feeling he wasn't to good at taking responsibility for his actions or telling the truth in his past. Cowards are just that way.
on May 7,2013 | 12:48PM
false wrote:
And the "Running 92nd" legacy continues on and on.
on May 7,2013 | 09:05AM
aomohoa wrote:
I agree, but why typical? I just don't get what that is suppose to mean??
on May 7,2013 | 08:04PM
aomohoa wrote:
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. What is this about??
on May 7,2013 | 08:15AM
bleedgreen wrote:
Are there no doors? I still cannot visualize why the occupants just didn't exit by opening the passenger doors. Why the four survivors escaped only by squeezing through the partition between the driver and the cabin.
on May 7,2013 | 08:27AM
OldDiver wrote:
It appears the fire started from the rear of the car where the doors are. The driver by some reports didn't stop the car for some three minutes after notified by the passengers of smoke.
on May 7,2013 | 08:41AM
localguy wrote:
OldDiver doing what he does best, copy and pace. Must be a boring life on days when you are not paid to blog for HART or Union Bosses.
on May 7,2013 | 01:03PM
Kokoy wrote:
Visualize this, smoke filling the cabin and you can see nothing. Have you ever been in a your friend's vehicle and didn't know how to operate the locks? Same thing, but with smoke and fire.
on May 7,2013 | 08:58AM
olos73 wrote:
Also, if the electrical system shut down, doors couldn't open.
on May 7,2013 | 09:16AM
hanalei395 wrote:
If one is INSIDE a vehicle, doors WILL open, MECHANICALLY, by simply turning the door handle.
on May 7,2013 | 11:31AM
aomohoa wrote:
Not necessarily true. Mine done because they lock at 10 miles mph and you have to know where the lock is to unlock them.
on May 7,2013 | 12:45PM
hanalei395 wrote:
OK. I once road in a six-door van. Before driving off, the driver locked all doors electrically. And he didn't need, he didn't have to unlock them. The passengers got out on their own, by just pulling on the handle.
on May 7,2013 | 03:12PM
aomohoa wrote:
Maybe you have only been in old cars.
on May 7,2013 | 08:08PM
olos73 wrote:
Limos should be required to have a manual removable sunroof for emergencies such as this. The rear doors couldn't open. At least have another escape route. So tragic.
on May 7,2013 | 08:27AM
hanalei395 wrote:
No more limos with U-shape seatings. Now...limos with only row seats. Each row will have their own doors. (And there are row seating/multi-door limos).
on May 7,2013 | 10:12AM
aomohoa wrote:
The driver was trying to get his live together after a criminal record. Maybe he is not so drug free after all. Maybe they should have done an immediate drug test on him.
on May 7,2013 | 09:02AM
mikethenovice wrote:
The city buses in Hawaii have window panes that can be pushed out for escape.
on May 7,2013 | 11:42AM
mikethenovice wrote:
Companies are trying to save money in these hard times by neglecting the maintenance. They will pay dearly will it fails.
on May 7,2013 | 11:44AM
aomohoa wrote:
This limo driver was trying to turn his life around after a criminal record. I have a feeling he wasn't to good at taking responsibility for his actions or telling the truth in his past. Cowards are just that way.
on May 7,2013 | 12:48PM
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