Public housing resident requested smoke detectors fixed before fatal fire

The mother who died along with her 3-year-old son in an April fire at their public-housing unit — in which there were no working smoke detectors — requested that the detectors be fixed two weeks before the fire, according to records obtained by The San Francisco Examiner.

That finding contradicts an earlier suggestion made by an attorney retained by the Housing Authority that the detectors were removed so that people in the unit could smoke methamphetamine, outraged community advocates say.

Esther Ioane, 32, and her 3-year-old son, Santana Williams, were found dead in an upstairs bathroom at their home at 76 Brookdale Ave. in The City's Sunnydale housing projects after a fire broke out shortly before 10 a.m. on April 16.

Ioane's daughter, who also resided at the two-story unit, was not present at the time of the fire.

The cause of the fire is undetermined, but the quick-moving blaze began in the downstairs living room in the blockhouse-style projects, according to a preliminary Fire Department investigation.

The units do not have sprinklers or other extinguishing systems, and the unit's smoke detectors were not working, the Fire Department found in an initial investigation.

On March 31, two weeks before the fire, Ioane put in a “high priority” work order to have the smoke detectors fixed, Housing Authority records show. On the work order, Housing Authority workers were given permission to enter her home.

A Housing Authority electrician tried to enter the unit to make the fix three times and was “rebuffed” by an unknown woman, according to Keith Cholakian, a private attorney hired by the Housing Authority who suggested the detectors were taken down so that people in the unit could use drugs.

The smoke detectors were found disassembled and stashed in a drawer, he said. Pipes with methamphetamine residue were also found in the unit after the fire, Cholakian said Monday, adding that there were four people present in the unit at the time of the fire, including “people who shouldn't have been there.”

“The individuals we spoke to said that that, yes, they were smoking in there, and they were smoking substances that were not legal,” he said.

Ioane also reported an electrical problem in her unit right before the fire, according to records.

In a work order dated April 16, the day the fire broke out, Ioane reported that light in the living room — the same room where the fire began, according to the Fire Department — was out.

Sunnydale is notorious for poor conditions. A 2012 inspection by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds the Housing Authority, found eight “life-threatening” safety violations at the 768-unit development — including inoperable smoke detectors nearby and blocked fire exits in the same housing block as Ioane's unit, and gave Sunnydale a score of 45 out of 100 for its physical condition.

On Monday, Christopher Dolan, the attorney retained by Ioane's and Williams' families, lashed out at the suggestion that their deaths were connected to drug use in the unit as “nothing more than a despicable attempt to smear the reputation of a dead woman and the memory of her child.”

“Instead of doing their job and fixing the smoke detectors, the [Housing Authority] seeks now to cover up its failure to provide safe housing,” he said. “The city Housing Authority should take responsibility for their failure to repair the smoke detectors and electrical problems in Ms. Ioane's unit. If they spent a fraction of the time they spend on covering up their failures fixing the problems at Sunnydale, Ms. Ioane and Santana would be alive today.”

Drugs were not a factor in the fire, according to the preliminary Fire Department report. The Medical Examiner's Office has finished its review into Williams' death, but not Ioane's, officials said.

No lawsuit has yet been filed.

The Housing Authority paid $3.2 million to settle a lawsuit that followed a 1997 fatal fire in Hunters View that killed six people, including five children.

Mattie Scott, the director of a Sunnydale-area nonprofit, laid the blame for the deaths squarely at the feet of the Housing Authority, calling the Sunnydale units “unsafe fire traps.”

“This is a disgrace how this city treats its poor citizens,” she said. “This is violence of the worst kind.”

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