SAN FRANCISCO - When one of the nine women in his limousine complained about smoke, Orville Brown pulled to the side of a San Francisco Bay bridge to check. As he got out, the back of the vehicle became engulfed in flames.
A newlywed bride and eight of her friends were still inside, but passersby quickly pulled three from the burning Lincoln Town Car late Saturday night. And one woman managed to reach safety by squeezing through the partition from the passenger section to the driver's compartment, Brown told authorities.
But five others, including the bride whose marriage they were celebrating on a girls' night out, became trapped.
The five were found dead as firefighters doused the vehicle - all huddled near the partition, apparently unable to squeeze through.
"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, who also relayed some of the comments the driver made to investigators.
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 if anything criminal occurred.
"We don't believe there" was, Foucrault said.
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 to hold another ceremony before family. Her friends in the limousine were fellow nurses.
Brown, 46, of San Jose, told investigators he picked the women up in Oakland and was taking them across the bridge to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City. Fojas' 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.
Brown's brother told the Chronicle the flames spread before he could help all 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.
Medical examiners will 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 for burns and smoke inhalation, 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.