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Answers sought on fatal limo fire in California

Newlywed among 5 dead

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — Authorities searched for answers Monday in the fire that roared through a limousine packed with women celebrating a girls’ night out, hoping to learn what sparked the blaze and why the dead could not escape the flames that turned a luxury car into a deathtrap.

The five bodies were found pressed up against the partition behind the driver, apparently because smoke and fire kept them from the rear exits of the extended passenger compartment.

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The position of the bodies suggested the women were trying to get away from the fire, said Robert Foucrault, San Mateo County’s coroner.

Mike Maskarich, commander of the California Highway Patrol, 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.

The women were celebrating the wedding of a friend when the rear portion of the Lincoln Town Car went up in flames Saturday night on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge over San Francisco Bay. The driver and four women were able to escape. The newlywed was among the dead.

Two of the four survivors remained hospitalized in critical condition on Monday.

The driver, Orville Brown, 46, of San Jose, said at first he misunderstood what one of the passengers in the back was saying when she knocked on the partition between the passenger area and the driver and complained about smelling smoke.

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With the music turned up, he initially thought the woman was asking if she could smoke. Seconds later, he said, the women knocked again, this time screaming, ‘‘Smoke, smoke!’’ and ‘‘Pull over,’’ Brown said.

He helped four of the survivors escape through the partition. One of the women ran around to a rear passenger door, but by then the vehicle was engulfed in flames.

‘‘When she opened that back door, I knew it wasn’t a good scene,’’ Brown said. ‘‘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.’’

Two of those killed were nurses at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno. A statement from the hospital said Neriza Fojas and Michelle Estrera worked on a trauma medical/surgical floor.

An official at the San Mateo County coroner’s office said the names of the other victims probably would not be released until Tuesday.

Maskarich 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 in-depth interviews, as well as an inspection of the gutted vehicle, were still needed.

A spokesman for the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates limos, said Monday 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.

Joan Claybrook, the top federal auto-safety regulator under Jimmy Carter, said the stretch limousine industry is poorly regulated because the main agency that oversees car safety does not have enough money to prioritize investigating the small businesses that modify limos after they leave the assembly line.

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