Police say arson fire that killed beloved grandmother was gang related

San Mateo police say a new twist in a recent fatal fire has turned their accident investigation into a homicide investigation. Relatives say 85-year-old Susana Tonga was the type of grandmother anyone would want.

“She’s a good woman, man. She’s loved by the community. And what happened, you wouldn’t want to happen to somebody else’s grandma,” said a man who wouldn’t give his name, but said he was one of Tonga’s grandchildren.

February 19, first responders raced to Tonga’s home in the one-hundred block of Humboldt Street in San Mateo. Flames were burning the structure, with multiple victims trapped inside.

“Initially we were dispatched to what we thought was just a house fire,” said San Mateo police spokesman Michael Haobsh.

Firefighters responded from station 24, which is just a couple of blocks from the fire scene. They arrived in 60 seconds. Police arrived a minute after that. First responders were able to rescue six people. But Susana Tonga did not make it out alive.

“We all miss and love her,” said Tonga’s grandson.

The subsequent investigation revealed an accelerant was put on the front door of the home, sparking the deadly blaze. Investigators used surveillance video from a neighboring home to track and arrest a suspect days later. San Mateo police have arrested 26-year-old Fifita Tau of East Palo Alto for intentionally setting the fire that killed Tonga. The motive behind the alleged crime was shocking even to veteran officers..

“This was a gang related incident. It was a gang-on-gang incident. And the gang member that set that house on fire, acted independently of his gang,” said Haobsch.

Investigators won’t say which gangs are involved, or what prompted Tau to seek revenge, and set Tonga’s house on fire, ultimately killing the beloved grandmother.

“I’m still in shock right now. I just now heard about it right now,” said Tonga’s grandson.

Relatives say they’re struggling to make sense of the new revelation, as they prepare for Susana Tonga’s funeral.