By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Investigators were trying to determine on Monday what caused a stretch limousine to burst into flames as it crossed a bridge over the San Francisco Bay, killing a new bride and four of her friends, law enforcement officials said.
Four other women suffered burns or smoke inhalation when the white Lincoln Town Car caught fire on Saturday night while traveling westbound over the San Mateo-Hayward bridge on its way to a party in Foster City, located about 25 miles south of San Francisco overlooking the bay, the California Highway Patrol said.
The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper reported that among the dead was new bride Neriza Fojas, 31, who had been celebrating her recent marriage with eight friends, all of them in their 30s or 40s.
Four of the women died alongside Fojas after they were unable to escape the burning limousine, the CHP said. There was no word on the condition of the four injured women on Monday.
The San Mateo County medical examiner, Robert Foucrault, told reporters at a morning press conference on Monday that the deceased women were found clustered around a partition between the passenger compartment and driver's seat.
"When we got there ... they were up against the partition," Foucrault said. "They were getting away from the fire and that's why they were in the front towards the partition. You could also probably say that they were trying to get out as well."
Law enforcement officials said it was too early to determine 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.
California Highway Patrol Captain Mike Maskarich said there was no evidence that the limo had been involved in a collision or struck any debris in the road.
The limousine's driver, Orville Brown, told the Chronicle in an interview that he first became aware of a problem when one of the women knocked on the partition and complained of smoke in the passenger compartment.
He said that because of loud music playing in the car he at first misunderstood and thought the woman was asking to smoke a cigarette. A few seconds later, he said, the women knocked again and were shouting, "Smoke, smoke!" and "Pull over!"
Brown told the newspaper that it took between 30 seconds to a minute before he was able to pull over 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."
The paper reported that Fojas, a registered nurse who worked at a Fresno hospital, was heading to a bridal celebration at a hotel in Foster City where her husband was waiting.
The couple was also planning to travel to her native Philippines next month for another ceremony with her family.
(Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Sofina Mirza-Reid and Leslie Adler)