Limo in deadly fire held more passengers than permitted

A limousine that was consumed by flames Saturday, killing a new bride and four other women, was carrying more passengers than it was licensed to hold, police said Monday.

An Alameda woman was among the victims, The Alamedan has learned.

California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Maskarich said the 1999 Lincoln Town Car limousine the women were riding in was only licensed to carry eight passengers, one fewer than the car was carrying Saturday night. But he couldn't say if any charges would come from the finding.

Police and fire officials are in the preliminary phases of their investigation into the cause of Saturday's deadly limousine fire on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge. Four other women were injured in the fire; the driver was not hurt.

At a press conference held at 10 a.m. Monday, Maskarich offered no new details on the cause or origin of the fire, and he said the investigation into its cause will likely take several weeks. Maskarich said preliminary statements have been taken from the driver of the car as well as the survivors of the fire, and that more detailed interviews will be conducted. CHP will lead the investigation, with the aid of the San Mateo-Foster City Fire Department.

San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault, who reportedly called the tragedy one of the worst he's experienced during his time in the coroner's office, said the five fire victims should be positively identified during examinations Monday, and families notified Monday afternoon. He said his investigation should be completed in the next two to three weeks.

Maskarich said the vehicle was licensed as a chartered party carrier regulated by the state Public Utilities Commission. He said the driver, 46-year-old Orville Brown, was properly licensed to drive the car and that its owner, LimoStop Inc., was expected to cooperate with the investigation.

The women were reportedly celebrating 31-year-old Neriza Fojas of Fresno's wedding and were en route from Alameda to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City when a passenger notified Brown that there was smoke in the passenger compartment, shortly after 10 p.m. Saturday. Maskarich said Brown pulled over and that he and four of the women exited the vehicle, but five others were unable to get out. The survivors, who were treated at area hospitals for smoke inhalation and burns, have been identified as Mary Grace Guardiano, 42, of Alameda; Nelia Arrellano, 36, of Oakland; Amalia Loyola, 48, of San Leandro and Jasmine Desguia, 34, of San Jose.

Maskarich, who said firefighters responded to the call within minutes, said three Good Samaritans, including an off-duty CHP officer, pulled over to help, but they were unable to get the women out of the path of the rapidly advancing flames. Foucrault said the victims were found pressed up against the partition between the passenger and driver areas.

"They were getting away from the fire," Foucrault said.

More as this story develops.