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Limo Fire: Driver, Passenger Tell Their Stories

Investigators are trying to determine why the a limousine burst into flames on a San Francisco Bay bridge, trapping and killing five of the nine passengers late Saturday night. Foster City Fire Department Chief Michael Keefe, right, speaks as Redwood City California Highway Patrol Commander Mike Maskarich stands by Monday.
Jeff Chiu
Investigators are trying to determine why the a limousine burst into flames on a San Francisco Bay bridge, trapping and killing five of the nine passengers late Saturday night. Foster City Fire Department Chief Michael Keefe, right, speaks as Redwood City California Highway Patrol Commander Mike Maskarich stands by Monday.

The four women who survived a fire that erupted in a moving limousine Saturday did so by squeezing through a narrow partition window between the passenger cabin and the driver's area. As we reported Monday, the tragedy claimed the lives of five other women on a bridge over San Francisco Bay.

The investigation of the fire is ongoing, but two people with vivid memories of that night — the limousine driver, and a passenger who survived — told their stories Monday.

We should note that while their descriptions overlap in key areas, there are also differences — as would be expected in eye-witness accounts of intense and rapidly developing events. With that in mind, here's a picture of the narrative that emerges from their stories:

The car's driver, Orville Brown, says that at first, he didn't understand that there was an emergency.

Brown says that as he was driving on the San Mateo Bridge, one of his passengers knocked on the window to the driver's area. When he lowered the partition, she said, "Smoke."

"I said, well — I look at the GPS. I'm thinking that she's saying, you know, she'd like to smoke," he told ABC's KGO-TV Monday. "Because they weren't panicking, okay? Or else, I didn't think they were panicking at the time that they said, 'Smoke.'"

"So I said well, it's only four minutes... the owner does not allow anybody to smoke in the car, for safety reasons."

That passenger has been identified as Nelia Arellano, 36. She told KGO-TV that when she and her friends, all of them nurses with roots in the Philippines, first saw smoke in the car's compartment, it was coming from an area of the rear seat between one woman's calves.

Arellano said they all began to crowd toward the front of the cabin, where she knocked on the partition, but the driver "didn't want to listen."

Finally, the fire broke into the seating area, and Arellano pleaded for help. That seems to be when Brown, who says he was trying to concentrate on driving on the bridge, took a closer look.

"And at that point, she said, 'No, smoke, smoke, smoke — pull over. And I finally kinda look back a couple times, and I see the grief on her face, okay. I can see that, you know, it's actually smoke. And I see the smoke coming through. And I'm panicking, they're panicking. I finally pull over."

Brown said it took some time — "perhaps 30 to 90 seconds" — for him to pull the limousine over on the bridge.

"As soon as I pull over, there's already a lady coming through the partition. I have to unlock the door and get out. At that point, I think another lady was coming through. I'm on the phone... I'm trying to, you know, call 911. I can't, I'm shaking. ... Some guys were trying to help, also. Two guys stopped, and they were trying to help."

Arellano was the first woman through the window. And in the interview, she said Brown didn't do enough to help her and her friends.

"When he get out from that car, he just opened the door, that's all he did. I even ask him, 'Help me, help me,' because I bring out my head from the compartment and say 'Help me' — so I had to squeeze myself over there and slide myself," Arellano tells KGO. "I even say, 'Please open the door, open the door.' He didn't do anything."

In Brown's view, he's "not the hero." He said that Arellano pulled two women out.

"I helped with two," he said. "There were other people there that actually helped... everything happened so fast."

"A lady got stuck, and I tried to pull her," Brown says, "I pull her — I'm telling her, let's hurry up, hurry up."

The fire became more powerful, Brown says, when someone opened the rear passenger door of the car.

"When the door was opened, it was horrific," he said. "I really don't know how to explain it. But the car was engulfed, completely engulfed. And I felt that nobody could have survived that. The flames were too high, it happened so fast."

Eventually, the blaze inside the car was too powerful for any more rescues to be made. Arellano described how another man who was helping them kept her from going back to the car, saying it was too dangerous.

The five women who died in the fire, including new bride Neriza Fojas, were reportedly found to have huddled near the partition, which measures 3 feet by 1-1/2 feet.

The doomed car was a 1999 Lincoln Town Car stretch limousine. Brown says he had driven it eight times before Saturday's fire. Investigators plan a detailed examination of the limousine, owned by Brown's employer, Limo Stop, Inc.

Police said Monday that with nine passengers, the car was one customer above its legal limit, as The San Francisco Chroniclereports.

As for what might have started the fire, Arrellano tells NBC Bay Area that neither she nor her friends from that night are smokers.

"It may have been electrical," Brown said. "The car didn't blow up. We did not smell gas... and it could have been smoldering for days."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigated the 1999 model Town Car, The Los Angeles Times reports, after reports of fires in fuel tanks after rear-end collisions.

"The NHTSA website shows one complaint – logged in 2004 – of a customer reporting an electrical circuit board issue with a 1999 Lincoln Town Car limousine. The complaint said the lighting and air conditioning in the rear of the vehicle failed," The Times reports. "'The connector heated up which could have caused a potential fire,' the complaint stated."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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