Families of 2018 Camp Fire Victims Share Their Grief at PG&E Criminal Hearing

The photos of the 84 people killed in a 2018 wildfire that wiped out the town of Paradise are displayed during a hearing held on felony charges against PG&E Corp., in Butte County Superior Court on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, Pool)

CHICO, Calif. (CN) — Recounting the final terror-filled moments of their loved ones’ lives, family members of those killed in the 2018 Camp Fire testified Wednesday that a maximum $3.5 million fine for 84 deaths caused by Pacific Gas and Electric’s faulty equipment doesn’t come close to resembling justice.

“I really think this is not fair that we are suffering, and the company gets to live. They get to keep going,” said Tamara Konicki, who lost her mother, Sheila Santos, in the fire sparked by PG&E’s equipment in November 2018.

Dozens of fathers, daughters, sisters, sons and brothers poured out their emotions in person, by phone and in written statements before Butte County Superior Court Judge Michael Deems on Wednesday. The heart-wrenching testimony came one day after PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter and one count of recklessly starting the most destructive wildfire in California history.

The fire started on Nov. 8, 2018 when a worn C-hook snapped off PG&E’s transmission tower #27/222 on the Caribou Palermo line in Butte County, causing a 115-kilovolt power line to arc against the tower, sending sparks flying onto the grass brush below. The fire burned more than 153,000 acres, wrecked 18,800 buildings and destroyed the towns of Paradise, Concow and Magalia.

A scathing grand jury report released Tuesday found PG&E repeatedly ignored warning signs about its antiquated power equipment, failed to learn from past tragedies and conducted inadequate inspections as it focused on profits over safety.

The company will pay a maximum $3.5 million fine, reimburse the Butte County DA’s Office $500,000 for the costs of its investigation, and pay up to $15 million over five years to restore the Miocene Canal in Butte County.

Several family members of those who perished in the fire argued Wednesday that the planned punishment does not fit the crime.

Laurie Tiague said her heart breaks every time she imagines the final moments of her beloved 80-year-old stepfather Herbert Alderman’s life. Alderman, who had a sprained ankle and limited mobility, died inside his Paradise home after making desperate phone calls to friends seeking someone to rescue him.

“He was trapped in a metal hot box of a trailer that would soon be engulfed in flames,” Tiague said. “No human being should ever have to suffer the unimaginable pain and terror of dying by fire.”

Tiague said PG&E executives and decision makers should be the ones facing punishment for her stepfather’s untimely death.

“Those decisions were made by people – people focused on profits, people who will never pay a price for the utter devastation of whole communities and the deaths of 84 people in the Camp Fire alone,” Tiague said.

Joseph Downer heard the crackling explosions of flames during the last conversation he would ever have with his brother, Andrew Downer, a 54-year-old wheelchair-bound amputee, just minutes before the flames surrounded his Paradise home and took his life. Downer recalled seeing a halo around the spot where his brother was burned alive on a wheelchair ramp as he attempted to flee the flames.

“Given PG&E’s history, it’s pretty clear that this company won’t change until some PG&E executive actually goes to jail,” Downer said. “A $3.5 million fine for killing 80 people is not justice.”

PG&E was previously convicted of 12 felonies related to the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people, injured 58 and destroyed 38 homes. The company is still on probation for those crimes.

Addressing the court by phone, Brandon Duvall described the last moments of his father’s life. Robert Duvall, 76, was “trapped like a caged animal” in the cab of his truck less than half a mile from his home as he tried to escape the town of Paradise.

Duvall asked PG&E executives to imagine raging flames of red, orange and yellow engulfing the vehicle as the stench of melting plastic, rubber and metal filled the air. Glass cracked and shattered. Black smoke and ash suffocated the interior as his father was burned alive, Duvall said.

“I wonder if he screamed out in torment until silenced forever by the inferno,” Duvall pondered macabrely.

His father’s remains were so thoroughly incinerated that DNA sampling was necessary to identify him. Weeks later, Duval received a cardboard box in the mail containing the remnants of his “once vibrant” father. More than a year later, Duvall said he still can’t bring himself to open that box.

Addressing PG&E executives, Duvall said, “Let this be a lesson to them and others who may be blinded by the bottom line and the pursuit of profit. Cutting corners and squeezing out every last penny possible only to please your shareholders will cost us all in the end.”

After the hearing ended, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said in a statement that he was deeply and personally affected by the testimony. Johnson acknowledged the pain and anguish of victims along with the “profound disappointment and anger” directed toward PG&E.

“On behalf of everyone at PG&E, I commit to doing better for our customers—to doing everything in our power to improve how we operate so that nothing like the Camp Fire ever happens again,” Johnson said.

Victim statements and testimony are expected to continue Thursday morning before Judge Deems sentences PG&E.

Also on Wednesday, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali issued a 31-page decision overruling the bulk of objections against PG&E’s plan for exiting Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The judge plans to hold a hearing on Friday to resolve any remaining objections with the intention of approving PG&E’s bankruptcy plan before June 30.

That’s the deadline PG&E must meet to gain access to a state-created insurance fund to help protect it from future wildfire liabilities.

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