SAN JOSE "Stop the car! Stop the car!" With smoke billowing from the limousine floor, Nelia Arrellano banged on the partition separating the driver from her and eight of her girlfriends heading over the San Mateo Bridge on their way to celebrate Neriza Fojas' recent marriage. The night would end in a fiery tragedy so horrific that Arrellano could barely speak through agonizing sobs Monday as she recounted Saturday night's final minutes of terror.
"There's smoke, and the fire coming out!" But the music was blaring in the 1999 Lincoln Town Car stretch limousine that was outfitted with trays full of ice for a night of partying and luxury among these longtime friends who were as close as sisters. All were Filipinas in their 30s and 40s, most working as nurses in the East Bay and Fresno.
Driver Orville "Ricky" Brown thought Arrellano was asking if she could smoke a cigarette in the limo. He checked his GPS. Only four minutes until they arrived at their destination: the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City.
"We'll be there soon," he told her.
They never made it. In an interview Monday with ABC7 news, Arrellano, 36, sat on the living room couch of her home in Oakland, clutching a wad of tissues, choking on words and wiping away a stream of tears as she tried to explain the last moments of the ride that ended in an inferno, the back third of the limo melted into gray ash.
Arrellano was the first to escape, squeezing through the partition to the front seat. "I bring out my head through the compartment and say, 'Help me,' " she said.
The bodies of the bride and four other friends, who had dressed up in elegant evening attire to celebrate, were found huddled next to the window partition that had been the escape route for Arrellano and three others who had barely squeezed through in time. At a news conference Monday, authorities said the limousine had one person over the state limit of eight passengers, but they said it was still far from clear what caused the fire.
Images of a roiling fire engulfing the back of the limo spread across the country Monday and drew national media to the victims' homes in the East Bay and to the nursing facilities and hospitals as far away as Fresno, where most of the women had worked. At one point Monday, the limo driver climbed into a limousine and was whisked away to appear live on CNN. In an earlier interview with the Bay Area News Group, Brown detailed the terror of those few minutes.
When he finally understood the panic behind him as much as a minute and a half after Arrellano first called out, "Smoke" he pulled to the side of the bridge. By that time, flames were shooting through the passenger compartment.
"It happened fast, it was engulfed so fast," said Brown, who escaped without injury. "It burned and burned, burned and burned." Brown said that when he got out of the car, he fumbled with his phone, so panicked that it took him "five minutes" to dial 911.
"I'm trying to call 911 on my phone, and I'm shaking, it wouldn't dial," he said.
He said he was terrified and wished he could have done more. On Monday, Arrellano wondered the same.
"When he stop the car, he get out from the car," she told ABC7. "He just get out from the car." As she desperately wiggled through the partition window, she said, she called out for him.
"He just open the door, that's all he did," she said, "I even ask him, 'Help me, help me.' " As flames built in the back, another friend made it through right behind her, but a third began struggling.
"I heard somebody yelling, 'I'm stuck,' " said Arrellano, with a visible cut under her eye Monday. "And I tried to pull her out." Brown said he also helped pull the woman through.
It's unclear why the women couldn't open the passenger doors at the rear of the limo. Perhaps the flames blocked them. Police wouldn't speculate during a news conference Monday morning.
Another motorist who stopped to help pulled open the back door to free the women still trapped inside, but was met with a whoosh of flames.
"There were flames everywhere," Brown said. "It was too late."
The last thing Arrellano did, she said, was pull her friend Jasmin Deguia of San Jose through the partition. When she turned to help the others, the car was dark with smoke.
A motorist who had pulled over stopped her. "You can't go back anymore," he said.
"I say, 'I need to go back. I need to go back and save them!' " Arrellano told ABC7. "But the man say, 'No, you cannot go back anymore.' " It was too late.
"I wish I could pull all of them out," she said, sobbing.
Brown, of San Jose, started with the limousine company two months ago, after several years as a commercial shuttle driver. A check of DMV records shows no violations on his driving record.
He speculated the limo had an electrical problem, but he didn't know for sure.