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Bride, friends who died in California limo fire identified

Vehicles drive on San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in Foster City, California May 5, 2013. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Vehicles drive on San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in Foster City, California May 5, 2013. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

By Laila Kearney

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A bride and four friends who died over the weekend trapped inside a burning limousine on a bridge over San Francisco Bay were formally identified by a coroner on Tuesday, but the cause of their death and of the fire are still under investigation.

New bride Neriza Fojas, 31, and eight female friends were heading across the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge on Saturday night to a party celebrating her recent wedding when the white stretch limousine they were riding in burst into flames.

Law enforcement officials say Fojas and four of her friends died as they tried desperately to escape the limo by crawling through a small opening in a partition between the passenger compartment and driver's seat.

Four other women, who managed to get out of the car after it stopped on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, survived the fire. A spokeswoman for Santa Clara Valley Medical Center said two of the injured women remained hospitalized there and were listed in fair condition on Tuesday.

In addition to Fojas, San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault identified the deceased women as Michelle Estrera, 35, of Fresno and Anna Alcantara, 46, Felomina Geronga, 43, and Jennifer Balon 39, all of Alameda, California.

Foucrault said the cause and manner of their death remained under investigation pending toxicology tests and that a final report could take three to four weeks to complete.

Law enforcement officials said they don't yet know what caused the 1999 Town Car to catch fire at its rear end, pending an inspection of the limousine by mechanical experts and fire department investigators.

'STOP THE CAR!'

California Highway Patrol Captain Mike Maskarich told reporters on Monday there was no evidence that the limo had been involved in a collision or had struck debris in the road. He said it had been carrying one more passenger than the eight that had been authorized.

Survivor Nelia Arrellano, 36, described to ABC News in a tearful interview broadcast on Tuesday her desperate efforts to alert driver Orville Brown to smoke in the limousine.

Arrellano told ABC she knocked on the partition separating the passenger compartment from the driver's seat and told Brown: "'There's already a fire. Stop the car! Stop the car!'"

Brown, in interviews with CNN and the San Francisco Chronicle, has said that when the women first alerted him to smoke he misunderstood because of loud music playing in the car and thought they were asking to smoke a cigarette.

Brown told the newspaper that it took between 30 seconds to a minute before he was able to pull over on the bridge and help some of the women through the partition. But as one went back to open the rear door, he said, it was already too late.

"When she opened that back door, I knew it wasn't a good scene," Brown told the Chronicle. "I figured with all that fire that they were gone, man. There were just so many flames. Within maybe 90 seconds, the car was fully engulfed."

Brown had picked up Fojas and her friends in Alameda and was driving them to meet her husband at a party at a hotel across the bay in Foster, California. The couple was planning to travel to her native Philippines next month for another celebration with family members there.

The five women died on the same day that a 26-year-old woman was killed after falling out of a bachelorette party bus onto a busy Kansas freeway and was struck by at least three vehicles.

(Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Alden Bentley and Richard Chang)

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