Darlene Esola, 58, left her groceries sitting on the kitchen floor as she ran outside to her screaming daughter, flames roaring overhead. Walter McCaffrey, 40, grabbed his dog amid the deafening din of the fire and ran, his window blinds melting and the paint on his porch bubbling behind him.
Hours later, firefighters worked to douse the towering ball of fire from a ruptured gas line that sent residents of a San Bruno neighborhood fleeing for their lives Thursday evening. The community was left to recall the horrifying blaze, survey the damage toll and figure out how to rebuild and return their charred hillside neighborhood to normalcy.
As the federal government began the investigation into the conflagration — which killed several people and injured dozens more — and Lt. Gov. Abel Maldanado, acting as governor, declared a state of emergency, residents of the neighborhood that overlooks San Francisco airport and the Bay waited.
Authorities blocked access to the neighborhood, treating the area as a crime scene to preserve any evidence of the damaged 15 acres while they probed the cause of the explosion, which happened just after 6 p.m. Thursday when a 30-inch Pacific Gas & Electric gas main ruptured.
Bill Palacio said he has roots in San Bruno and doesn’t plan to leave, regardless of the condition of his home on Glenview Drive, which was still uncertain Friday.
“We’ve been living there 30 years and we raised our children there,” Palacio said. “Even though whatever happened, San Bruno is our home.”
Some residents, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep after being forced to evacuate the area, exchanged stories of what they had seen, many still with no idea whether they had their homes to return to or just a pile of ash and a chimney.
One woman, exasperated after police refused to let her go down San Bruno Avenue, said to no one in particular, “Where do you go when you can’t go home?”
Jennifer Esola, 25, was pulling away in her car from her family’s house on Claremont Drive when she heard the explosion and saw the flames leap above the neighborhood. Screaming, the University of San Francisco graduate student went back for her parents inside their house. They got into her car as debris rained down and people ran through the streets, some with burn wounds.
The Esolas didn’t know the fate of their home until Friday morning, when Jennifer peered down the hillside from the backyard of a home on Crestmoor Drive. She spotted the single-story stucco home, still standing, though many of the houses on their street were gone. “Luck,” Jennifer Esola said.
“We’re very relieved for our house, but we’re devastated for our neighbors and friends,” said Darlene Esola, a seventh-grade teacher, who said they hoped to recover whatever items they could from the house.
Many displaced residents like Tina Alarcon planned to stay with nearby family until they could go home. Others found shelter with help from the Red Cross.
“This is a safe community — we’ve never really had crime,” said Alarcon, who lives with her sister on Glenview. “This is the first crisis we’ve had in this area.”
Assemblyman Jerry Hill, whose district includes the explosion site, said the state will do whatever it can to help residents regroup and rebuild. Hill also vowed to probe the cause of the disaster, including reports that residents had smelled gas in the area weeks before Thursday’s explosion.
“We can’t afford this [happening again], from a personal tragedy standpoint, anywhere else,” Hill said.
How to get or offer help
Veterans Memorial Recreation Center
251 City Park Way at Crystal Springs Road
On site: Insurance companies, the Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA, the Mexican Consulate, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, AT&T, PG&E, San Mateo County.
Information: Call (650) 616-7180 or visit sanbruno.ca.gov
San Mateo County Community College District has some available apartments: Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Red Cross
- Checks can be made out to the American Red Cross and designated for the Glenview neighborhood fire.
- Monetary donations preferred. People can also donate food, clothes and other supplies.
- (888) 4HELP-BAY or www.redcrossbayarea.org
- Call (800) SAL-ARMY or visit www.SalvationArmyUSA.org
- The Salvation Army is also accepting donations of clothing and furniture at six locations in the Bay Area.
(888) 393-GIVE (4483) or www.bloodcenters.org
- Peninsula Humane Society is taking in lost animals as well as providing free temporary homes for up to 30 days.
- To find pets, check at the Veterans Memorial Center or contact the Humane Society at (650) 340-7022.
- The San Bruno Petco store collected some animals and is working with the Humane Society.
- Will continue as scheduled to neighborhoods unaffected by the fire.
-Mail for damaged or inaccessible homes can be picked up at the San Bruno Main Post Office, 1300 Huntington Ave., 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Call (650) 952-2901 for information or visit www.usps.com.