Family Files Suit Against SF for Fatal Fire at Sunnydale Public Housing

The family members of a 3-year-old boy and his mother who died in a fire in San Francisco’s Sunnydale public housing complex last year have filed a lawsuit alleging that their deaths were a result of the city’s Housing Authority’s failure to investigate an electrical issue at the home.

The lawsuit was filed in San Francisco Superior Court about the fatal fire reported at 9:53 a.m. on April 16, 2014, at a two-story public housing apartment at 76 Brookdale Ave.

Esther “Eseta” Ioane, 32, died in the fire in an upstairs bathroom, according to the fire report.

Ioane was found using her body to cover her 3-year-old son, Santana Williams. She appeared to be trying to shield him from the flames.

Ioane was pronounced dead at the apartment. Santana was found alive and rushed to San Francisco General Hospital in critical condition, but died of his injuries a few hours later.

A dog was also found dead in an upstairs bedroom, according to a report by fire investigators.

The fire, which started on the first floor in the living room, was brought under control at about 10:20 a.m.

The fire investigators’ report states that there was a smoke detector in the home, but it didn’t work.

In 2011, Ioane had previously complained about the state of disrepair at the housing unit and even refused to pay rent until repairs were made, according to court documents.

Ioane described a “defective electrical system; no heat” as well as windows that did not open properly, falling plaster and even a spider infestation. She said the Housing Authority failed to perform the obligations specified in the rental agreement.

Attorney Marc Pelta, who is representing Ioane’s parents and her daughter Jermeisha Robinson, said the fatal fire occurred “because of the negligence of the San Francisco Housing Authority.”

Pelta said attorney Christopher Dolan is representing Santana’s father, Keith Williams, and that attorney Dan Dunbar is representing Ioane’s 12-year-old daughter Taimane Haney.

Pelta said the Housing Authority allegedly failed to investigate an electrical issue previously reported by Ioane and “neglected to provide working smoke detectors in the apartment that Eseta was killed in with little Santana despite Eseta’s request for working smoke detectors on two separate occasions.”

Attorney Kevin Cholakian is representing the San Francisco Housing Authority but was not immediately available to comment on the case, which has a status hearing scheduled for Aug. 12.

The Housing Authority provided documents to fire investigators indicating that during the weeks prior to the blaze, a request had been made to check that the smoke detectors at that home were working properly.

Fire investigators found that the fire started in the west wall of the home’s living room, but they could not determine the exact cause of the fire, according to the report.

An electrical outlet showed signs of a possible electrical event and could not be ruled out, the report said.

A heater in the home was also a possible cause and was used like an end table and often had large amounts of debris piled around and on it. The heater was sometimes used to dry clothing and was often left on high, according to witnesses.

One witness told investigators that nearby couches had started smoking two weeks before the fatal fire.

Witnesses also told investigators that Ioane would “party all day” and often fell asleep on the couch “with something cooking in or on the stove or with a cigarette or weed” in her hand.

The fire investigation report notes that “two glass pipes typically used for smoking recreational drugs were located” in the living room.

Investigators said they could not rule out carelessly discarded smoking materials as a cause of the fire.

Another witness was interviewed by investigators and stated that Ioane allegedly “was a dope addict and would stay up for days.”

An autopsy revealed that Ioane had methamphetamine and cannabinoids present in her system at the time of her death.

Following the fire in the Sunnydale complex, community members invited policymakers and concerned citizens to see the poorly maintained housing complex and urged them to make repairs.

The San Francisco Housing Authority is in the process of transferring management of its long-dilapidated public housing units to nonprofit and private housing providers.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced earlier this year that the public housing units would receive a $500 million facelift over the next three years as the units are transitioned to private property managers under the nationwide Rental Assistance Demonstration program.

Hannah Albarazi, Bay City News

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