A month after five nurses died in a burning limousine, 10 women celebrating a 90th birthday escaped injury Sunday when their stretch limo started smoking and caught fire as it idled outside a home east of San Francisco.
Two caregivers helped eight woman - most in their 80s and 90s and some using walkers or canes - escape about 11:30 a.m. in the Rossmoor retirement community in Walnut Creek, witnesses and police said.
The group had been celebrating Elayne Lofchie's 90th birthday at her home and were going to her daughter's house in Sonoma County.
"I don't understand how it happened. I really don't," Lofchie told KNTV-TV. "One minute everything is fine, and the next minute it was chaos."
Another passenger, 63-year-old Mary Chapman, said white smoke began coming from the partition separating the driver and passengers. She told the Associated Press that the doors were still open and that she and her companions got out with the help of a caregiver and each other.
"I think that's what saved us," she said. "The doors were not closed, so they weren't locked."
Flames engulfed the car about 15 minutes later. The police report identifies the limo as a 2004 Lincoln Town Car, operated by TownCar SF, Lt. Jay Hill told USA TODAY on Monday.
The company owner, Claudius Oliveira, told the San Francisco Chronicle and KNTV the car was a 2008, while the Contra Costa Times and other reports identified it as a 2009.
"Smoke came out from behind the driver's seat. That's where the switchboard is that runs the television, the stereo, the lights," he told the Chronicle. "The driver saw the smoke and got everybody out."
Oliveira told the Chronicle that the car had been driven only 7,000 miles and inspected by mechanics every 3,000 miles. But the Associated Press quoted him as saying it had been driven 80,000 miles. He said faulty wiring was responsible and blamed the manufacturer.
TownCar SF is licensed to operate, the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates limousines, told AP.
The limousine was listed as seating eight passengers, including the driver, said CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper. Only vehicles seating 10 or more are required to be inspected by the California Highway Patrol.
Including the driver, the car in Sunday's accident would have had 11 passengers. Some of the group ultimately carpooled to Sonoma County for the day.
Prosper told AP the agency is "looking into the matter and will obtain the official number of passengers."
If the company misrepresented the limousine's seating capacity, the regulator could fine it $7,500 per day of violation.
In 2011, the regulator suspended TownCar SF's operating license once for not having worker's compensation insurance on file and once for not having liability insurance on file. Those are the company's only violations with the agency.
Walnut Creek police also notified the state highway patrol about Sunday's fire.
The fire happened about a little more than a month after five nurses, including a recent bride, died inside a burning 1999 Lincoln Town Car limousine on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge south of San Francisco. Four women and the driver escaped.
The California Highway Patrol has not yet determined or announced what caused the May 4 blaze, but authorities said the car, operated by Limo Stop, was overloaded.
Last week, KGO-TV cited sources as saying that the rear air springs failed. That caused the stretch limo to bottom out, rupturing the gas tank, which was ignited by sparks.
Michael Winter, USA TODAY