Authorities say investigation of deadly California limo fire to take weeks

Authorities say it will take weeks to investigate the cause of a limousine fire in California that left a newlywed bride and four of her friends dead.

The women were killed killed Saturday when the limo they were traveling in to celebrate her marriage caught fire on a Northern California bridge, but four others inside managed to escape with injuries. The driver, who is licensed to drive the limo, was unharmed.

“We’d like to offer our heartfelt condolences to victims, family and friends,” Mike Maskarich, the Redwood City commander of the California Highway Patrol, said during a press conference Monday. He said the limo was only permitted to carry eight or fewer passengers, but it was carrying nine.

The driver, Orville Brown, said at first he misunderstood what one of the passengers in the back was saying when she complained about smelling smoke.

With the music 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 told the San Francisco Chronicle.

He helped four of the surviving women escape through the partition. One of the women ran around to the passenger door on the back side of the limo, but by then it 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."

The other five were found dead as firefighters doused the vehicle -- all huddled near the partition, apparently unable to squeeze through.

Maskarich said three good Samaritans tried to get the five victims out of the flaming limo, but weren't successful.

Robert Foucrault, the San Mateo County coroner, said medical authorities are trying to get a preliminary identification of the victims completed by the end of Monday. A full examination will take two to three weeks.

However, KTVU reports that relatives identified one of the dead as 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.

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 Monday, a spokeswoman for Valley Medical Center said. The condition of Arrellano, who was taken to another hospital, was not known.

A spokeswoman for Community Medical Center in Fresno also said one or more of its employees were in the limo.

The San Mateo Fire Department is 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.

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 San Francisco 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 showed flames shooting from the back of 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.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.