The driver of the limousine that burst into flames Saturday night on the San Mateo bridge says he initially misunderstood the cries coming from the bachelorette party in the back of the white stretch Town Car. "They had the music up in the back, and I figured she was asking, 'Can I smoke?' ," driver Orville Brown explained. "I said, 'The owner doesn't allow smoking in the car, and we only have four minutes to the destination.' "
Brown, 46, who also goes by the name "Ricky," told the Chronicle that he rolled down the limo's glass partition the second time one of the women knocked on it. The women were shouting "smoke, smoke!" and telling him to pull over. Brown says it took him 30 seconds to pull over from the first time they banged on the partition. By then the car was already starting to fill with smoke. "It was coming through so fast," Brown said. Before he even got out of the vehicle, one of the women was already starting to climb through the partition. Brown says he believes that was the woman who had booked the car for the ride from Alameda in the East Bay to the Crown Plaza Hotel in Foster City where the groom was waiting.
The four survivors all escaped through the partition and out the front of the vehicle. The first woman out ran to the passenger door at the back of the car, but it was too late to help. "Within maybe 90 seconds," Brown explained, "the car was fully engulfed." According to the medical examiner, the five victims were found crowded near the partition window, apparently trying to get out.
Some passersby managed to film the blaze on the bridge, but didn't stop to help, thinking there was nothing they could do:
Brown, a married father of three with commercial driving experience, says he took the job driving for Limo Stop two months ago as a way to save money to start a program to help at-risk youth in San Jose. Although he was apparently so shaken by the incident that he no longer wants to work as a limo driver, Brown has pledged to donate his next two paychecks to the victims' families.
The limo company, licensed and insured with the California Public Utilities Commission, is cooperating with investigators. They also issued a statement saying that they will do everything possible to determine the cause of the bizarre, tragic fire.