The 84 victims of 2018 Camp Fire given voice at emotional PG&E hearing

Their names and their stories filled the vast courtroom Wednesday less than two years after they perished in the Northern California Camp Fire."These...

Posted: Jun 17, 2020 2:33 PM
Updated: Jun 17, 2020 3:45 PM

Their names and their stories filled the vast courtroom Wednesday less than two years after they perished in the Northern California Camp Fire.

'These people up here, they're not just statistics, they had names,' a tearful Thomas LeBlanc said as he remembered his stepdaughter, Kimberly Wehr, in a victim impact statement.

The emotional statements gave voice to victims one day after California utility Pacific Gas and Electric Company pleaded guilty Tuesday to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully starting the Camp Fire, the deadliest blaze in the state's history.

'Being unable to rescue your child is an incalculable parental nightmare,' LeBlanc said in the Butte County courtroom. 'I leave this courtroom, your honor, as a victim because I have been scarred for life. If they feel just a little bit of pain today, mission accomplished.'

The company will be fined 'no more than $3,486,950,' according to court documents filed in March. It must also reimburse the Butte County District Attorney's Office $500,000 for the costs of its investigation into the blaze.

Among other provisions, PG&E must establish a trust, compensating victims of the 2018 Camp Fire and other wildfires to the tune of $13.5 billion, according to the plea agreement included in a regulatory filing.

It has to pay hundreds of millions to the town of Paradise and Butte County and cooperate with prosecutors' investigation, the plea deal says. Survivors spoke Wednesday as part of presentence proceedings.

Last words as the fire closed in

Joseph Downer, remembered his brother Andrew Downer, whom he had spoken with on the phone 15 minutes before flames consumed his home.

There is no price on the lives lost, he said.

'Imagine what would happen if an ordinary citizen killed 80 people ... I don't believe justice is served by a $3 million dollar fine. That is less than what Mr. Johnson makes in a year,' said Joseph Downer, referring to utility CEO and President Bill Johnson, who will retire at the end of June.

'Mr. Johnson flew here on a private jet and yet PG&E cannot pay $13 for a new C-hook,' Downer said, referring to the metal device in a utility tower that failed and caused an insulator assembly to fall and start the fire in dry vegetation.

'My brother Andrew Downer paid the ultimate price because PG&E just didn't give a damn. '

Richard Salazar, one of the four adopted children of Phyllis and Frederick Salazar, who perished in the fire, said he misses them very much.

'They were everything to me,' he said.

Laurie Teague spoke of her stepfather, Herbert Alderman, 79, who was married to her late mother for 28 years.

'He didn't get around very well and he didn't drive but he was still as sharp as a tack,' she recalled. 'And he knew everything that was going on around him.'

Alderman had been receiving physical therapy at home. On the morning of his death, he called the receptionist at his health care provider at least five times, 'each time sounding more panicky and desperate,' Teague said.

'He was pleading for help. Begging for someone to come and get him,' said the stepdaughter, adding that he was assured help was on the way.

'His last words ... were, 'The fire is two houses away. Help me.' And the phone line went dead,' Teague remembered.

His health care provider had sent help but they couldn't get passed a roadblock. Alderman's remains were found in the rubble of his home.

'My prevailing thought has been, how absolutely terrified Herb must have been,' Teague said. 'My heart aches for him.'

The fire 'killed a town'

Butte County District Attorney Michael L. Ramsey said the 'historic moment' should be a signal that corporations will be held responsible for 'recklessly endangering' lives.

The 84 people 'did not need to die,' Ramsey said. The deaths were 'of the most unimaginable horror, being burned to death.'

No individuals will be sent to prison, Ramsey said.

'This is the first time that PG&E or any major utility has been charged with homicide as the result of a reckless fire. It killed a town,' Ramsey said, referring to Paradise, which was annihilated by the blaze.

Under the plea deal, PG&E waived its right to appeal the case.

'I have heard the pain and the anguish of victims as they've described the loss they continue to endure, and the wounds that can't be healed,' Johnson said after the plea. 'No words from me could ever reduce the magnitude of such devastation or do anything to repair the damage. But I hope that the actions we are taking here today will help bring some measure of peace.'

Johnson was in court Tuesday, where Butte County Superior Court Judge Michael Deems read the names of each victim as their photos were shown on a screen, CNN affiliate KTLA reported.

Johnson said the utility would never put profits ahead of safety again. He told the judge that PG&E took responsibility for the devastation 'with eyes wide open to what happened and to what must never happen again,' KTLA reported.

In March, the utility and the state agreed to bankruptcy terms, which included an overhaul of PG&E's board selection process, financial structure and oversight.

According to investigators with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, PG&E was responsible for the devastating Camp Fire. Electrical lines owned and operated by PG&E started the fire November 8, 2018, CAL Fire said in a news release.

'The tinder dry vegetation and Red Flag conditions consisting of strong winds, low humidity and warm temperatures promoted this fire and caused extreme rates of spread,' CAL Fire said.

PG&E had previously said it was 'probable' that its equipment started the Camp Fire but that it wasn't conclusive whether its lines ignited a second fire, as CAL Fire alleged.

The power company filed for bankruptcy in January 2019 as it came under pressure from billions of dollars in claims tied to deadly wildfires.

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