"Stop the car! Stop the car!"
With smoke billowing from the limousine floor, Nelia Arrellano banged on the partition separating the driver and eight of her girlfriends heading over the San Mateo Bridge on their way to celebrate Neriza Fojas's 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 of them 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.
"In the 21 years I've been with the office -- all deaths are horrific -- but this is just very impactful," San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said. "And it's probably the worst one I have ever seen."
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 this newspaper, 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 getting hurt. "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.
A video recorded by a passerby shows the back of the limo in flames and a few women perhaps 15 yards away crouched alongside the bridge railing. The four women who survived were recovering Monday; including Deguia, 34, of San Jose, Mary Grace Guardiano and Amalia Loyola, 48, of San Leandro. Deguia and Loyola were upgraded to serious condition Monday at Valley Medical Center.
Many of the women either work or have worked for Fruitvale Healthcare Center in Oakland, a spokeswoman for the center said Monday. While the coroner has yet to identify any of the dead, a Fresno hospital where two of them worked said the tragedy claimed two of their nurses. The bride, Fojas, 31, and another friend, Michelle Estrera, both worked as trauma and surgical nurses at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno. Both were killed in the fire, according to a statement from the hospital. Fojas had recently wed and was planning to travel to her native Philippines to hold another ceremony.
"Both were good friends, stellar nurses and excellent mentors," hospital officials said.
The owner of Limo Stop, San Jose resident Kultar Singh, expressed condolences for the victims and their families. "We are saddened by this horrific event that took the lives of five people, and it happened in one of our cars," he said.
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.
"There are lots of things in limousines that are flammable, from the extra foam to the extra vinyl, wood paneling, all the lighting systems," Brown said.
On Monday, interview after interview, he shook his head and expressed his grief and sorrow, promising to donate his next paychecks to help the women and their families.
"I wonder why the five of us were able to escape but the other ones didn't," Brown said. "I've been asking those questions since it happened."
Staff writers Joshua Melvin and Mark Gomez contributed to this report.
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.