REDWOOD CITY — As smoke thickened and a fire grew in the back of a limousine, Nelia Arellano desperately tried to squeeze through a 3 foot by 1 1/2-foot partition.
Stuck for a moment, Arellano made her way into the front seat. Three of her friends quickly followed. Five others didn't make it. Their bodies were later found pressed against the partition.
Arellano said in an interview Monday with KGO-TV that she believes the driver, Oliver Brown, could have done more to help during the fire, which took place Saturday night on one of the busiest bridges on San Francisco Bay.
"When he stop the car, he get out from the car, he just get out from the car," she said.
Arellano and other women had started the night celebrating the recent wedding of Neriza Fojas and were headed across the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge to a hotel in Foster City.
Brown, a San Jose man who worked for the limo company the past two months, has said in interviews that one of the passengers tapped on the partition behind him, saying something about smoke as music blared from the back. No smoking was allowed, he told them.
Then the taps turned to urgent knocks, and someone screamed "Pull over!"
Brown said he stopped on the bridge as soon as he could. Then he helped pull the women out through the partition, he said.
One of the women who made it through the partition ran to the back and yanked open a door, but Brown said that provided oxygen to the fire and the rear of the limo became engulfed in flames.
Brown said he believed it was an electrical fire.
"It could have been smoldering for days," he told KGO on Monday, noting there was no explosive boom.
Authorities searched for answers Monday, hoping to learn what sparked the blaze and why five of the victims killed Saturday night couldn't escape.
The position of the bodies at the partition suggested they were trying to get away from the fire, San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said.
Fojas, 31, a registered nurse from Fresno, was planning to travel to her native Philippines to hold another wedding ceremony with relatives. Her friends in the limousine were fellow nurses.
Fojas was among the five killed. Her mother, Sonya, broke into tears during an interview in the Philippines with local TV network GMA News.
"How painful, how painful what happened," she said.
The U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Harry Thomas Jr., on Tuesday expressed condolences to the Fojas family.
"Mystery surrounds deadly limo fire," he said in a Twitter message. "Condolences to the Fojas family in the Philippines and the U.S. and other nurses."
Fojas and another woman who died, Michelle Estrera, were nurses at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno. The husband of a third victim, Jenni Balon, 39, identified her to the San Francisco Chronicle.
John Balon, 38, said their 10-year-old daughter cries for her mother at night and is still working on paintings to give her for Mother's Day. His daughter and 1-year-old son are still looking for their mother, he said.