The limo was carrying one too many passengers, investigators said at a news conference Monday
"This particular vehicle is listed with the Public Utilities Commission as for carrying eight or fewer passengers, we will be working with members of the PUC to determine what specific regulatory mandates are required in this situation, because as we know there were nine people in this vehicle," California Highway Patrol Commander Mark Maskarich said.
Three Good Samaritans, including an off-duty CHP officer, tried to help, but were unable to get the women out. Firefighters rushed to the scene and put out the fire before finding five badly burned bodies huddled near the partition. Four passengers escaped the blaze, with one squeezing through the partition. The victims who escaped suffered various injuries including smoke inhalation and burns.
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. Fojas and her friends were on their way from Oakland to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City, where her husband was waiting.
California Highway Patrol identified the surviving passengers as Mary Grace Guardiano, 42, of Alameda; Nelia Rafael Arellano, 36, of Oakland; Amalia P. Loyola, 48, of San Leandro; and Jasmine Desguia, 34, of San Jose.
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. Those tests could take up to two weeks.
The fire broke out in the bridge's westbound lanes and firefighters faced a long drive just to reach the burning limo. Fire crews from both Hayward and Foster City raced to the scene from their own ends of the bridge. The Foster City firefighters drove eastbound and then used a turn around on the span to reach the burning car. The distance from that turn-around to the scene is about 1.7 miles.
"Our response on this bridge was heading in the eastbound direction and we were on the bridge in the eastbound direction five minutes after the call came in," Foster City Fire Chief Michael Keefe said.
His firefighters reached the bridge at 10:18 p.m. but since the limo fire was on the westbound lanes, they had to turn around. Throughout that time, they had to navigate through heavy bridge traffic with cars going at highway speeds in two of the lanes. Their response time from the fire station to the scene was 11 minutes and 50 seconds.
The horrible scene even shocked 21-year veteran San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault.
"All deaths are horrific in nature but this one...just very impactful," he said. "It's probably the worst one I've seen working for the coroner's office."
The fire apparently started in the back of the vehicle. A surviving passenger says she saw smoke billowing up from the floor.
"We saw smoke at the back of the car where one of our friends was sitting," Nelia Arellano told ABC7 News in an emotional interview. "All of us probably move to the front towards the front because the fire came from the back."
Arellano says she was knocked on the partition that separated her and her girlfriends from the driver.
"He doesn't want to listen, I told you, there is smoke and the fire came out, there is already a fire. Stop the car, stop the car."
The CHP said Monday that the driver of the limousine was properly licensed to drive the vehicle. Driver Orville Brown says all his thoughts now are on the victims and their families.
"I reach out to the families, I really feel for them. I wish we could've done something different to save them," he said.
Brown said he is planning to donate his salary for the next two weeks to the families of the victims. He hopes others will do the same.
Husband talks about losing his wife in limo fire
John Balon, Jennifer "Jenny" Balon's husband, spoke to ABC7 News about losing his wife in the limo fire. He said they did almost everything together, including going grocery shopping with each other. However, on a rare occasion, he says she went out on Saturday night and left him alone with the children.
"I can't believe that it happened," he said.
It happened on the same day they celebrated their oldest daughter's 10th birthday. Jenny's friend, Nellia Arrellano, survived. She called, in tears, and told John that just before the fire broke out, smoke poured in from the back of the limo cabin.
"Jenny was all the way back so she wasn't able to pull her out before the car was engulfed in flames," John said.
He had to tell his kids the next morning what happened. John said their 2-year-old son is trying so hard to reach Jenny. He says, "We have to call Mommy," because he wants to talk to her.
John said the friends had regular get-togethers and the husbands and children all knew each other well.
Before the fire, another person riding on the bridge says she noticed the rear of the limo sagging close to the ground.
"It was dragging about an inch off the ground. It wasn't on the ground, but it was very close to the ground," said witness Stephanie Seidner.
She said she contacted the CHP.
A decade ago, that type of Lincoln town car limo was the subject of a federal safety investigation into fuel tank fires after rear-end collisions. Police say there was no rear-end crash on Saturday. And in 2004, a customer complained of an electrical circuit board problem. The cause of this tragedy is unknown.
ABC7 News reporters Vic Lee, Amy Hollyfield, Cornell Barnard, Nick Smith, Laura Anthony, Alan Wang, John Alston, the Associated Press and ABC News contributed to this report.