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Elderly women safely scramble from burning limo in California

By Laila Kearney

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A group of mostly elderly women, half of them in their 90s and some using canes, escaped unharmed from a stretch limousine that burst into flames at a gated senior community in Northern California, police said on Monday.

The incident on Sunday afternoon came a month after a bride and four friends died trapped in another burning limo as it crossed a bridge over San Francisco Bay some 30 miles away.

The California Highway Patrol was looking into links between the two fires, said Lieutenant Jay Hill of the Walnut Creek Police Department.

In the most recent incident, the 10 women were sitting in a black limousine in their gated community in Walnut Creek at noon on Sunday when it caught fire, Hill said. The group had been headed to a birthday party for one of the nonagenarian women, some of whom used canes and walkers.

One of the passengers, Mary Chapman, told local KGO-TV that they became alarmed when they saw smoke coming out of the car.

"When I looked out, there was red flames and black smoke and now you can see the result," she said, gesturing to a large burned spot on the asphalt where the limo had been idling when it caught fire.

"I just think there should be laws to regulate limousines just like there are for trucks," Chapman said.

A spokesman for the limousine company declined to comment on the incident.

Contra Costa Fire District spokesman Robert Marshall said the cause of the fire had not been determined, but that it appeared to have started in an area near the partition that separated the driver's seat from the passenger compartment.

He said that part of the limo typically holds a power inverter that supplies electricity to televisions, mini refrigerators and other appliances used by passengers.

"Generally speaking, there's a lot of electrical that goes through there. Where this occurred is consistent with a lot of electrical (wiring) in the vehicle," Marshall told Reuters.

In the May incident, new bride Neriza Fojas, 31, and eight girlfriends were heading across the San Mateo-Hayward bridge toward a party celebrating her recent wedding when their white stretch limo became engulfed in flames.

Law enforcement officials say Fojas and four of her friends died as they tried to crawl through a small opening in a partition between the passenger compartment and driver's seat.

Four other women, who managed to get out of the car after it stopped on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, survived the fire.

(Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Doina Chiacu, Carol Bishopric and Bob Burgdorfer)

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