OROVILLE (CBS SF) — One by one the names of the 84 victims killed in the devastating Camp Fire were read aloud in Butte County Superior Court Tuesday and with each, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson answered with a single word – “guilty.”
Under a plea bargain, the nation’s largest publicly held utility pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter in deadly 2018 wildfire that devastated the town of Paradise.
There was little emotion — because of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place requirements the attorneys all wore masks and there were no relatives allowed inside the proceeding.
Butte County Superior Court Judge Michael Deems read the name of each victim aloud in the courtroom while the images of the dead were shown on large screen as Johnson entered a plea for each of the counts. The fire killed 85 people, but prosecutors weren’t certain they could prove PG&E was responsible for one of the deaths.
Johnson also pleaded guilty on behalf of the company to one felony county of unlawfully starting a fire.
“Our equipment started that fire,” said Johnson, who apologized directly to the victims’ families. ”PG&E will never forget the Camp Fire and all that it took away from the region.”
Raw Video: PG&E CEO Bill Johnson Apologizes In Court For 2018 Camp Fire
According to deal, PG&E will pay the maximum fine of $10,000 for each life lost in the blaze.
The wildfire was caused by a break in a worn piece of equipment on a high-voltage transmission tower and raced through the community, killing local residents as they attempted to flee the wall of flames.
The company was also set to plead guilty to an additional count of illegally causing a fire that resulted in great bodily injury.
The utility will be sentenced later in the week after two or three days of emotional victim impact testimony by family members of people who died in the fire.
Under a plea agreement announced in March by Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey and PG&E, the utility will pay the maximum possible penalty of about $4 million.
Ramsey said that the penalty will include the maximum fine of $10,000 for each involuntary manslaughter count; $50,000 on the fire count;
and court fees allowed by law, for a total amount calculated at $3,486,950. In addition, PG&E will pay Ramsey’s office $500,000 for the cost of investigation.
PG&E will be arraigned on the 85 counts and enter the plea before Judge Michael Deems at the Superior Court’s North Butte County Courthouse in Chico beginning at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.
At a news conference in Oroville at 2 p.m., Ramsey will release his office’s criminal investigative report in the case.
The victim impact statements will begin in Superior Court on Wednesday and continue through Thursday or Friday, after which the judge will sentence PG&E.
The Camp Fire began on Nov. 8, 2018, when a suspension hook known as a C-hook on a nearly 100-year-old transmission tower in the Sierra
foothills in eastern Butte County broke, causing a power line to fall against the metal tower and sending sparks to dry grass below.
The wildfire quickly swept southwest through Butte County in dry and windy conditions, killing 84 people and burning 153,336 acres. Nearly the entire city of Paradise was destroyed.
In May 2019, Cal Fire announced it had determined the fire was caused by PG&E electrical transmission lines in the area of Pulga in eastern Butte County. But the agency did not give details, because it forwarded its investigative report to Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey for the criminal probe.
PG&E has acknowledged that the broken C-hook caused the fire.
In a filing in federal court in San Francisco last July, the utility’s lawyers wrote, “PG&E acknowledges that the failure of a component on a nearly 100-year-old PG&E transmission tower caused the Camp Fire.
“The component that failed was a steel suspension hook known as a C-hook,” the PG&E attorneys wrote.
The filing was submitted to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing PG&E’s probation in a criminal pipeline safety case stemming from the fatal explosion of a PG&E natural gas pipeline in San Bruno in 2010.
PG&E spokesman Ari Vanrenen said the company had no comment Monday on the planned guilty plea, but said he expected to have a statement on Tuesday.
In announcing the plea agreement in March, PG&E Corp. Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said the utility accepts responsibility, and said, “All of us at PG&E deeply regret this tragedy and the company’s role in it.”
Ramsey said in March that the crime of involuntary manslaughter by a corporation must be based on proof of criminal negligence in failing to perform a legal duty to those who died.
Separately, PG&E is awaiting a federal bankruptcy court ruling on ]whether its financial reorganization plan for exiting Chapter 11 bankruptcy will be confirmed.
The utility filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, allowing a temporary freeze on its debts, in January 2019, citing billions of dollars in liability for the Camp Fire and 2017 fires in the North Bay.
“They are accepting blame,” said Magalia Community Church Pastor Kevin Lindstrom. “We all feel like they got away light.”
Lindstrom didn’t have much time to think about Tuesday’s guilty pleas. He’s still running a non-stop operation to feed, clothe, and house fire victims.
“So many people think it’s all over, and everybody should be healed and on the way,” Lindstrom says of the effort to recover in the Paradise area. “There never have been enough caseworkers to deal with all the people.”
PG&E’s bankruptcy plan does include more than $13 billion for wildfire victims, but not many people here are counting on that given the day-to-day challenges a year-and-a-half after the fire.
“Even if they settled, and accepted it and everything today, it doesn’t really change much of anything in anyone’s lives,” Lindstrom says. “This is just going to go on for a while yet.”