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Report: Driver on phone before limo fire

The Associated Press

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. -- The estranged wife of a limousine driver who was behind the wheel when a fire in the vehicle killed five women celebrating a wedding said he had been arguing with her on the phone moments before the blaze, according to a newspaper report yesterday.

Rachel "Raquel" Hernandez-Brown told the San Jose Mercury News that during their shouting match, Orville Brown turned up the music in the limo so his passengers couldn't hear the tense conversation.

"The music was really loud. And I kept yelling, 'I can't hear you. Turn it down,' " Hernandez-Brown told the newspaper. "I said, 'You're not paying attention.' You know, like, get off the phone. Stop calling me."

One of the nine nurses in the vehicle said she banged on the partition to warn the driver that the back of the limo was filling with smoke. Orville Brown told authorities he initially misunderstood the warning as a request to smoke a cigarette and kept driving.

Hernandez-Brown, in her first comments about the May 4 vehicle fire, said Brown called moments after getting out of the limo to tell her it was ablaze.

"He was continuously calling me back," she told the Mercury News. "I said, 'Well, what made you call me first?' He said, 'Well, I don't know, I didn't know who else to call.' "

The couple have four children and separated about a month before the fire, on the San Mateo Bridge. Hernandez-Brown called police hours before the blaze to report that Brown had kicked and dented her car during an argument.

California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Maskarich said yesterday that investigators did interview Hernandez-Brown. "The matter is still in the review process," he said, declining to discuss the investigation any further.

The nine nurses had hired the 1999 Lincoln Town Car to celebrate the recent wedding of Neriza Fojas, one of the five women who died.

In interviews with media shortly after the fire, Brown said he did "everything he could do" to help save the passengers.

One of the survivors, a sobbing Nelia Arellano, told KGO-TV a few days after the fire that Brown "didn't do anything" to help the women escape the car. In a May 7 interview, she told NBC Bay Area that Brown was on the phone.

"Open the door. Open the door," Arellano said the women were yelling. "But he didn't do anything. He was on the phone."

Brown's brother, Lewis Brown, an attorney based in Vallejo, denied to NBC Bay Area on May 7 that the driver was on the phone. Lewis Brown said the women couldn't see through the closed partition to know whether he was on the phone.

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