The estranged wife of the Northern California limousine driver who was behind the wheel when a fire in the vehicle killed five women celebrating a wedding in May said he had been arguing with her on the phone moments before the blaze, according to a newspaper report Sunday.
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 paper. "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. Brown told authorities that 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. He had left the scene before police arrived.
"We need to follow up on this," Karen Guidotti, chief deputy San Mateo County district attorney told the newspaper when told of its finding. Police had not previously spoken with Hernandez-Brown.
The newspaper reported that the California Highway Patrol was expected to announce the cause of the fire soon, and investigators had focused on friction from the drive shaft.
CHP spokesman Art Montiel told The Associated Press on Sunday that he hadn't see the paper's report and said "there was no update" on its investigation.
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.
The driver told the newspaper that he was "not authorized to talk to any more reporters, no more interviews." The Associated Press couldn't reach Brown on Sunday.
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," Brown 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 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.
"He was not on the phone," Lewis Brown told NBC Bay Area on May 7.
Lewis Brown's voicemail box said it was full and not accepting messages Sunday.