PASADENA – Lack of communication between commanders and sloppy search procedures were to blame for Pasadena Fire Department’s failure to find a woman’s body in a burned-out garage in July, according to a report summary released Monday by City Manager Michael Beck.
Report: San Marino Incident – Investigation Overview
Firefighters missed the charred body of Yolanda Marie Sapetto, 43, during two searches and two separate calls to a July 31 fire that engulfed a detached garage conversion at 36 S. San Marino Ave.
Sapetto’s foam- and debris-covered remains were discovered Aug. 2 in the garage’s laundry room by an insurance investigator.
“Overall there was a lack of communication between command personnel,” said the report prepared for the city by the law firm of Gutierrez, Preciado & House, which enlisted former Alhambra Fire Chief John Kabala as an investigation consultant.
In addition, department procedures – which call for a quick structure search to look for fire victims before or during the initial “attack” operation – were not properly followed, the report found.
Fire Chief Calvin Wells declined to comment on the report, and its recommendations, on Tuesday; he is expected to make a presentation to the next meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee.
Police Chief Phillip Sanchez said Tuesday that the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office is conducting further tests to determine the cause of Sapetto’s death.
“Our preliminary report from the coroner indicated that she had methamphetamines in her system, and determined that as a factor,” Sanchez said. “But we are looking at all avenues.”
The report was critical of the way firefighters both responded to the fire and handled the aftermath.
At the first service call, neither the primary nor secondary searches of the garage structure included the (5-by-8-foot) laundry room,” the report said. The searches, the report said, also “were apparently conducted by the same crew and very close in time to each other.”
When the fire was put out, “the fire captain in charge of the scene chose to spray the affected areas with foam,” causing the body to be “further obscured,” the report said.
The report also questioned the use of foam at the fire, saying it not only hid the body but could have contributed to the fire rekindling.
The department’s policy on applying foam was “unclear” to some fire captains, who also told investigators that they believed debris should be “disturbed as little as possible for insurance purposes,” according to the report.
Fire captains on the scene suspected the fire was caused by faulty wiring, the report said; but, although the cause was not determined, no one called the fire investigator and the fire scene was “left unsecured.”
The second call, about an hour after firefighters had left the scene, was to put out a “rekindle,” the report said. At that time, the laundry room ceiling was brought down, “causing more debris to fall on the body which was already obscured by foam.”
“The debris and other charred materials were not removed from the laundry room,” according to the report, and no secondary search was made.
In the report, Kabala recommended the fire department should reinforce training on search policies, clarify rules on use of foam, and put procedures in place for requesting a fire investigator.