ELIZABETH, N.J. — Fumes poured from the Kia SUV as soon as an emergency medical technician broke one of the rear windows. Inside, the body of a dark-haired young woman reclined in the driver's seat, keys dangling from the ignition.
But who was she? How was it that her life had ended here, in a convenience store parking lot?
Waiting for the vapors to clear so they could search her belongings, police noted the most obvious clue: She was wearing a familiar white-and-brown uniform. By that night, friends had identified her as Maria Fernandes, 32 and single, who worked minimum wage jobs at three nearby Dunkin' Donuts shops — often sleeping in her car between shifts.
Within days, Fernandes was being mourned online as a tragic heroine and a casualty of modern economics. By the time friends filed past the open casket, some had had enough.
"Society has a way of looking down at people who try to make ends meet," friend Rochelle Sylvestre eulogized. "Maria won that battle! She is still winning!"
Maria Fernandes worked most days from 2 to 9 p.m. at a Dunkin' kiosk inside Newark's main train station. Then she headed to a second shop in Linden, where she worked from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. On weekends, she added an 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift at a third shop in Harrison, picking up additional hours when asked.
She often appeared exhausted, co-worker Alaaddin Abuawada said.
She slumped on cartons in the Harrison store's kitchen for 15-minute naps. When co-workers called her name for help, she jokingly answered, "No."
This was not the life Fernandes had expected.
More than a decade ago, she told friends she wanted to be an actress. She talked about going to school to be a beautician.
Fernandes had traveled far to pursue those dreams. She was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, to Portuguese immigrant parents. When she was 11 her father, a welder, retired and moved the family to his hometown on Portugal's Atlantic coast.
"She was kind of lost in this small town which was not hers," half-sister Olinda Moreira said.
In 1995, Fernandes spotted a Volkswagen with New Jersey license plates and introduced herself to owner Jose Ribau, visiting his hometown. That seeded friendships with Ribau's daughters.
Six years later, Fernandes appeared unexpectedly at the Ribaus' house in Newark, lugging a suitcase. She was 19.
"She always talked about coming to the U.S.," Cristina Ribau Orama recalled. "It was just a matter of time."
Eventually, Fernandes found a job at Calandra's bakery. In 2010, managers noticed when she talked about needing money to support a new boyfriend's children and took on a second job at a Dunkin' Donuts shop.
She had met the boyfriend, Richard Culhane, online. When he lost his construction job months later, Fernandes urged him to move to Newark, though they'd never met, and paid his first month's rent. Eventually they moved in together.
Culhane still sounds perplexed by her generosity. She bought a tent for a homeless man she saw near work. After they broke up last year she continued stopping by with videogames for the boys.
"Before she left, she was paying almost all of it," Culhane said of the couple's bills. "She was like, 'I'll take care of you,'" he said.
Culhane said Fernandes was fond of his boys, but was overwhelmed by the noise they caused. In 2011, the couple's landlord filed eviction papers when Fernandes fell behind, although she was able to work out a restitution plan.
After quitting the bakery, she picked up hours at a second Dunkin' Donuts, then a third. Co-workers said all paid at or just above the minimum wage — which New Jersey recently raised by $1 to $8.25 an hour.
"I told her over and over, 'Quit one. You're working too much," Culhane said. "But she said, 'No, I'm used to it now.'"
Some of Fernandes' expenses reflected choices. Friends recall many times she helped pay for their food or travel.
Fernandes was one of eight or nine women bound together by their love for Michael Jackson. After Jackson died, they ventured to California each June to visit his burial site.
"To me, when you say you're not alone, it literally means Michael is always there," Fernandes said, in a video filmed outside Jackson's mausoleum this past June.
Fernandes' paychecks made the trips possible. While it's not clear exactly how much she earned, she worked at least 87 hours each week; friends say even more. That equates to yearly income of $36,000, assuming two weeks off.
But work increasingly limited the time she had to spend it. This past June, she told the other women she wouldn't be able to make it to California, then surprised them by showing up at the cemetery before vanishing at day's end.
"She knew what she was working for — to get to California, to see Michael," friend Dar 'Shay White said.
This spring Fernandes' profile on a dating website caught the eye of Glen Carter, a 33-year-old Army veteran. Carter said he encouraged Fernandes to consider moving to Pennsylvania. But the idea was cemented when Fernandes took three days off early August and they met for the first time, taking Carter's daughter to Hersheypark.
White said she encouraged Fernandes to move, but Fernandes worried about leaving the doughnut shops short-handed.
Fifteen minutes before sunrise on Monday, Aug. 25, Fernandes finished her overnight shift. Halfway home, she pulled in to the parking lot of a Wawa convenience store.
"U can call if you like," she texted Carter, and they discussed the day ahead. Then Fernandes tilted back the seat to catch up on sleep.
She never woke up.
Inside the vehicle, police found the gas can Fernandes kept behind the back seat, tipped over and leaking. Her death was caused by inhaling gas vapors and was accidental, the Union County Medical Examiner would determine.
At the cemetery, mourners lay roses on her cream-colored casket.
Beside the grave, Fernandes' co-worker, Armando Gonzalez, glanced at his watch. There was just enough time, he said, to run home, change into his familiar white-and-brown uniform and report for a 3 p.m. shift.
"We've got to keep living, you know?"