Questions Remain Unanswered in Limo Fire Deaths

As the families and friends of five women killed in a deadly limousine fire struggle to come to terms with the deaths of their loved ones, investigators struggle to determine what caused such a lethal vehicle fire. Meanwhile, the limousine's chauffeur says that he helped pull several of the surviving women to safety, yet one survivor disputes his claim. The horror unfolded Saturday night in the San Francisco Bay area as nine women were having a girls' night out to celebrate a wedding. At approximately 10:00 p.m., one member of the party began to tap on the partition between the passengers and the driver, trying to get him to pull over because there was smoke in the back of the limousine. The driver claims he misunderstood the woman, thinking she was asking if it was okay to smoke in the vehicle. A short time later, as she again pounded on the partition, screaming, "Pull over! Pull over!" he realized the seriousness of the situation. According to driver Orville Brown, he pulled over and helped three of the survivors through the 3 foot by 1-1/2 foot window in the partition. When one survivor went around to the back of the vehicle to open a door, the driver says, "Everything happened so fast. When that back door opened, it just burst into flames." A witness reported that the flames were so intense, she could feel the heat on her face even though she was in her own car the entire time. Survivor Nelia Arellano, however, disputes Brown's account. She says that when she tried to get him to pull over, "he does not want to listen." Arellano says that when he finally stopped the limousine, she squeezed through the partition and ran around back to try to help her friends escape the inferno. She says that Brown did nothing to help the passengers escape, a claim which may be supported by a coroner's account that one woman escaped through the partition, and three got out through the rear driver's side door. Although there were nine passengers in the limousine, it was licensed to carry only eight. Investigators have not determined if being over capacity contributed to the women's deaths. Five members of the party, including the bride who was the guest of honor, perished in the fire. The driver and four women escaped, two of whom are still hospitalized in critical condition with serious burn injuries. The primary question in this case, however, is not how the survivors escaped; rather it is how such an enormous fire could have started. Driver Orville Brown says that there was no sign of a problem with the vehicle prior to the fire. A California Highway Patrol spokesman says that photographic evidence indicates that the fire started in the trunk, although he could not determine yet whether the fire started in the interior or exterior of the limousine. A fire starting in the rear of a vehicle is an anomaly. Vehicle rescue expert Ron Moore says that it is unusual for "people to die in a vehicle without a crash." He continues, "Normally, fires start in the engine, so you have a more controlled situation." According to the U.S. Fire Administration, only four percent of vehicle fires originate in the trunk. However, in this case, a fire in the rear of the vehicle blocked the most available exit for the limousine's passengers. Investigators say it will take weeks to determine the cause of the fire and whether or not Limo Stop, the company who owned and operated the limousine service, exhibited any negligence in the fire.