July 03--Smoke detectors that failed to sound when a deadly fire erupted in a San Francisco public housing unit in April had been intentionally dismantled and stuffed in a kitchen drawer, according to a private investigation authorized by the San Francisco Housing Authority.
The fast-burning blaze broke out at 76 Brookdale Ave. in the Sunnydale public housing development on the morning of April 16. It killed Esther Ioane, 32, and her 3-year-old son, Santana Williams. The two were discovered in the bathroom of the burned unit.
The investigation also turned up drug pipes and methamphetamine, and two witnesses who live near the burned unit told the investigators that the residents had disabled the detectors because they were tired of them going off when they smoked drugs, according to Kevin Cholakian, a private attorney representing the Housing Authority.
Seven people were in the unit at the time of the fire, some trapped on the second floor as the flames raged at ground level. Firefighters helped get most of them out alive, including Santana, who was badly burned and later died at San Francisco General Hospital. Two adjacent units were also damaged.
A preliminary report by the San Francisco Fire Department released in May said the smoke detectors had "failed to operate" but did not say whether the devices had been broken, shut off or failed for another reason. Fire investigators were unable to determine the cause of the blaze.
Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said the department's final report isn't complete. She wouldn't comment on the Housing Authority's privately commissioned report other than to say the firm that performed it is a "well-known company in the industry."
Cholakian said the Housing Authority hired Fire Cause Analysis, a private company regularly used by government agencies to conduct fire investigations. The company worked in tandem with the Fire Department, Cholakian said.
He said the private investigators found three smoke detectors in a kitchen drawer. The unit's fourth detector was not found, but witnesses said it had been placed on living room furniture and had burned in the fire.
Investigators also found two drug pipes in the living room and sent them to Drug Detection Laboratories in Sacramento, which found methamphetamine in them. Two witnesses, whom Cholakian would not identify, live in Sunnydale and are preparing to give depositions in the case.
"Basically, they are both reporting that all four smoke detectors in the units were disabled by the residents because they were going off so often when the residents were smoking and cooking," he said. "Obviously, it's a very sad situation. There were children there."
Cholakian said the Housing Authority is investigating witnesses' reports that people not on the lease were living in the unit at the time of the fire and that some of them used drugs.
It is not clear whether the Housing Authority conducts regular inspections of units to see whether smoke detectors are installed and working properly. Rose Dennis, spokeswoman for the agency, declined to comment.
Smoke detectors were installed throughout the city's public housing system after a 1997 fire in a Hunters Point public housing unit killed a grandmother and five children. A judge ruled the Housing Authority was responsible for the deaths because it had failed to install working smoke detectors and ordered the agency to pay $12 million to the victims' families.
The agency struggled for years to pay off the judgment, eventually getting help from the city to sell off unused land and clear its debt.
Joshua H. Watson, a senior associate for the Dolan Law Firm, which is representing Ioane's mother and Santana's father, said his team had requested documents from the Housing Authority about the fire but had not received the results of the private investigation. He said he learned of the accusations of drug use and dismantled smoke detectors from The Chronicle.
Heather Knight is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @hknightsf