Family members remember victims of fatal limo fire
SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The driver and a passenger who survived a fatal fire in a limousine on the San Mateo Bridge have conflicting accounts about what happened when the blaze erupted. Tuesday, a witness came forward to corroborate the passenger's account of the tragic night as family members remembered the women who died.
Nelia Arrellano survived the fire, but five of her friends did not and she believes the limo driver could have done more to help.
"He doesn't want to listen. I told you, 'There is smoke' and the fire came out, there is already a fire. 'Stop the car, stop the car!'" said Arrellano.
Victor Panting was a passenger in a car going the other way on the bridge. He saw the fire, stopped and watched in horror. He wondered then and has ever since why he didn't see the driver. When he saw Arrellano's version on the news, he wasn't surprised.
"I have two hernias and a broken foot and considering that I'm this disabled person, I was willing to jump over the center divider to open the door," Panting said. "It is just beside me, I can't understand. Where was this limousine driver?"
Limo driver Orville Brown says he did everything he could. "The car was engulfed, completely engulfed and I felt that nobody could have survived that."
The women were all trying to get out through the divider between the front and backseat.
"When he got out from that car, he just opened the door, that's all he did," Arellano said. "I even ask him, 'Help me, help me,' because I bring out my head from that compartment and say 'Help me,' so I could squeeze myself over there and slide myself. I even ask the driver, 'Open the door, open the door!' He didn't do anything."
ABC7 News has confirmed the identities of all five victims -- the bride, Neriza Fojas, Michelle Estrera, who along with Fojas was from Fresno, Anna Alcantara of San Lorenzo, Jennifer Balon of Dublin, and Felomina Geronga of Alameda.
Bride Neriza Fojas' parents live in the Philippines. They learned about their daughter's death by watching the news. Fojas' mother, Sonya Fojas, told Philippine Network TV5, "We couldn't eat, we couldn't sleep. It is very hard to accept what happened." Her, Carlito, last spoke with his daughter Friday via Skype. The parents say her ashes will likely be brought to the Philippines once forensic tests are complete.
John Balon's wife Jennifer died in the fire. He was told she was sitting in the very back of the limo when it became engulfed in flames. He says, when he got the initial phone call that something had happened, he never imagined she was dead.
"I really didn't know what happened, but I already had a clue that something bad happened because my wife didn't call," he said. "I checked my phone. There's no text message or missed call at all from her."
Balon says the family had just celebrated their daughter's 10th birthday on Saturday.
Felomina Geronga also could not get out of that burning car in time. Aldrin Geronga says life without his wife will be hard for him and his two children, ages 10 and 13.
"He just told me, 'It's going to be Mother's Day and I don't have a mother,' and that doesn't leave you feeling good," Geronga said, recounting what one of the children said.
The nine women decided to meet at the Geronga home on Saturday night. That's where the limo picked them up.
"The limo was pulled up in front of our house," neighbor Carol Fairweather said. "My husband noticed it and we noticed half an hour later it was still there. So the next morning when we saw the news on TV, I was hoping it wasn't the same limo."
Anna Alcanatara's husband Abner recalls the moment he was told of the accident. "I drove right away to the scene. When I got there all the bodies were gone. The police told me."
The couple has two kids, 8 and 14 years old. They were about to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
"It would be 15 years, this May 30," Alcanatara said.
Among the survivors, Nelia Arrellano suffered minor cuts and has been released from the hospital. Mary Grace Guardiano was being treated at Stanford Medical Center, but may have been released as well. Amalia Loyola and Jasmine Desguia are both at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.
When the initial emergency calls went out Saturday night, crews had no idea of the tragedy that would unfold. ABC7 News obtained the first dispatch calls from seconds after the fire broke out. The Foster City Fire Department was the first crew to arrive on the scene 11 minutes, 50 seconds after the fire was first reported.
When the first CHP officer arrived, he made an instantaneous assessment.
"Officer on scene. We are going to have to close the bridge down. If you will allow the toll plaza not to allow any more traffic through," he told dispatch.
The calls between San Mateo County, the California Highway Patrol and several other agencies went on for hours until the coroner came out and the bridge was eventually cleared.
traffic, san mateo bridge, car fire, fire, fatal limo fire, peninsula news
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