WALNUT CREEK -- On the morning of her 90th birthday celebration, Elayne Lofchie climbed into the front seat of a limousine rented for the occasion to take her and nine friends to a party at her daughter's Sonoma home.
Dressed to the nines in hats and long dresses, Lofchie and the other women, most in their 90s, had been strapped in and ready to go for mere minutes when they found themselves pulled from the vehicle and scattering in different directions as flames engulfed the limousine.
Though no one was hurt, Sunday's fire in the gated community of Rossmoor was eerily reminiscent of a May 4 limousine fire on the San Mateo Bridge that killed five women who were trapped in the car. Four others escaped.
Lofchie had been sitting away from the others Sunday in the front seat of the 2009 Lincoln Town Car, which was idling outside her Skycrest Drive home. The car had not even pulled away when one of the caretakers smelled smoke.
"We were all buckled up and ready to go when she called 'Fire!' " said Bernice Dreyfus, 96, also a Rossmoor resident and longtime friend of Lofchie's. "Then the ladies in the front started crawling over me, trying to get out the back doors."
As flames appeared in the driver's compartment, the driver and two caretakers helped to get all of the women, many of whom require walkers, out of the back of the limousine. Dreyfus then grabbed Lofchie and hurried her into her home and out to the back deck, past Lofchie's prized collection of over 1,000 dolls and away from a slew of oxygen tanks they were afraid might explode if the fire spread.
"The old ladies, some ran up the street," Dreyfus said. "Me and Elayne, I don't know how we made it without our walkers, but we made it."
"I firmly believe you have an inner strength that's called on when you need it," Lofchie added.
Lofchie was not aware of why she was hurried away from the vehicle until Dreyfus sat her down and told her about the flames she had seen shooting from the limousine.
"We were really nervous," Lofchie said. "We didn't know what was happening."
The owner of the limousine defended his fleet and industry on Monday, saying such fires are "very rare" despite the blaze being the second high-profile incident in the Bay Area in more than a month.
"It's very surprising," said Claudius Oliveira, owner of TownCar SF. "Limos have been around since the 1960s. How often do people die in limousines? Very rare. Look at the numbers."
While Dreyfus' walker was ruined in the fire, none of the 10 women was injured in the fire, nor while running from it. The location of the fire -- which apparently started near the front of the vehicle -- may have helped save the lives of those inside the vehicle.
The fatal San Mateo limousine fire started in the rear of the vehicle, trapping passengers inside when the flames blocked the doors; those who survived the fire had to crawl out through the partition that separated the driver from the passengers.
Though the investigation is ongoing, Oliveira said the fire started in an electrical switchboard. He said the limousine has been inspected and maintained, and fire extinguishers were put in after the fire on the San Mateo Bridge. A fire extinguisher was in the limo that caught fire Sunday, he said.
"Everyone is safe, everybody is in great shape," Oliveira said, adding that the women nevertheless attended the party in Sonoma. "No harm, no foul. That's what I'm thinking."
Walnut Creek police found "nothing indicating there was any criminal negligence," according to Lt. Jay Hill. Police have turned the investigation over to the California Highway Patrol and the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees commercial limousine use.
A spokesman for the CPUC said they are looking into how many passengers were in the vehicle. The limo is listed with the CPUC as seating eight passengers, including the driver, according to spokesman Andrew Kotch.
The CHP has not inspected the limo; only limos listed as seating 10 or more passengers must undergo a CHP safety inspection, Kotch said. Police have said there were 10 women and a driver in the vehicle. Any misrepresentation of the seating capacity could result in a penalty of $7,500 per day of violation, Kotch said.
Oliveira has an active permit to operate the limo service, according to the CPUC. His permit was suspended from Jan. 24 to Feb. 28, 2011, for failure to file liability insurance and again from Aug. 8 to Aug. 15, 2011, for failure to file compensation insurance, according to CPUC records.
"There's a lesson to be learned by this -- not to take a limousine," Lofchie said Monday, reflecting on her experience.
"No," Dreyfus added. "The lesson to be learned is to enjoy each day."