New report sheds more light on fatal SF public-housing fire

The fast-moving fire that killed a 32-year-old single mother and her 3-year-old son began in the downstairs living room of their home in the Sunnydale housing projects, where a heater “covered” in clothing was often left on high and where an outlet experienced an “unspecified electrical event,” according to a Fire Department report released Thursday.

However, whether the fire began because of the heater, an overloaded electrical socket or a lit “combustible” is still unknown. And the report might create more questions than it answers.

Esther Ioane and her son, Santana Williams, died the morning of April 16 after a fire broke out at 76 Brookdale Ave. at 9:52 a.m. Within minutes, the fire engulfed both stories of the two-bedroom unit.

Firefighters arrived shortly before 10 a.m. and extinguished the blaze by 10:13 a.m., according to surveillance video. They found the mother and son in the bathtub, which was three-quarters full of water, with Ioane on top of her son as if to protect him from the flames.

Ioane was declared dead at the scene. Santana died later that morning at San Francisco General Hospital. A dead dog was also found upstairs.

Two other occupants inside the home at the time managed to escape, one through a second-story window.

The fire began in the area around a downstairs heater. The heater, used as an end table and also for drying clothes, was frequently turned to high and had caused two leather couches placed nearby to “smoke” in the weeks before the fire, according to witnesses.

Investigators also found evidence of an “unspecified electrical event” at a nearby electrical socket, but were unable to determine whether the fire began at the heater, electrical socket or somewhere else.

Two glass pipes “of the type” used to smoke “recreational drugs” were also found downstairs, according to the Fire Department report.

Kevin Cholakian, a private attorney hired by the Housing Authority, has said occupants of the unit removed the smoke detectors in order to prevent them from going off while using methamphetamine.

Ioane's autopsy revealed that she had methamphetamine and marijuana in her system at the time of her death.

The person who escaped the fire through the upstairs window told authorities that Ioane was “a dope fiend” who would “stay up for days.” Another witness said Ioane would often fall asleep on the downstairs couch with a “cigarette or weed” in her hand.

The morning of the fire, Santana was reportedly in an upstairs bedroom while Ioane was asleep on the downstairs couch with the heater on high.

Screams of “fire” awakened one of the witnesses who escaped the burning home, according to the report.

The unit is supposed to have four smoke detectors. None were in operation at the time of the fire.

An initial Fire Department report issued in May said that the detectors were present but “failed to operate.”

A private fire investigator retained by the Housing Authority found three smoke detectors with the batteries removed stashed in a hutch in the kitchen. The fourth smoke detector was found atop a vanity.

It's “highly unusual” for a private investigator to hand over key evidence to Fire Department officials, said Christopher Dolan, an attorney hired by the families of Ioane and Santana.

The video and reports “speak for themselves,” Cholakian said.

However, Ioane also put in a request to have her smoke detectors fixed two weeks before the fire, according to Housing Authority records.

She also reported an electrical issue in the living room where the fire began, records show.

The fix was never made, as the Housing Authority electrician reportedly was unable to gain access to the unit.

Ioane did have a criminal history stemming from drug use. She pleaded guilty to grand theft and possession of a controlled substance in 2006, according to court records, and served 110 days in jail.

Dolan last month filed a claim — the predecessor to a lawsuit — against the Housing Authority. A lawsuit could follow next month.

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