One year after San Bruno blast: Neighborhood reborn amid the ruins 

Bob Hensel is famous in San Bruno for making a vow.

He made it in a public meeting just weeks after the Sept. 9, 2010, pipeline blast that killed eight of his neighbors and destroyed dozens of homes. Hensel slipped the mayor a note, which read, “I plan to be the first one to rebuild.”

It looks like he just may deliver on his promise.

A year after he fled from a home that was about to burn to the ground — the home he and his wife raised children in — he is just months away from completing a new one.

But the Hensels can’t dawdle if they hope to be the first ones back in a brand-new home: another house in the neighborhood is “neck and neck with us — maybe even a little bit ahead,” Hensel fretted.

That house belongs to the Pellegrinis, who hope to have their new home completed in the next few months.

“We’re not sure if it’ll be Thanksgiving or Christmas, so we’re just saying it’ll be done by the holidays,” said Tina Pellegrini.

Of the 38 homes destroyed by the pipeline explosion a year ago, seven have so far received permits to rebuild, and six more have applications under city review. Another 11 are in
pre-application discussions with the city.

In the weeks after the blast, PG&E offered to purchase any home that an owner did not wish to rebuild, and any homes from people who simply wanted to move.

So far, three owners of destroyed homes have taken the company up on its offer, as have another three from elsewhere in the neighborhood who chose to simply relocate.

But far more people have chosen to stay in the neighborhood and rebuild, according to San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson.

“This is what I would have expected,” Jackson said. “San Bruno is characterized by people who have lived in the town for a long time, who are committed to the community, and they have a strong history in the neighborhood.”

Just 11 homes remain unresolved, Jackson said, and some of those homes belong to people who lost loved ones in the fire, and for whom “this is a very, very difficult decision.”

“Some of them have lost their families and lost their everything, so they’re just taking their time. There are other people who have just not decided — or maybe they have but haven’t told us about it yet,” she said.

All this rebuilding has given the Crestmoor neighborhood the ambiance of a massive construction zone.

Some neighbors have complained about the noise and construction traffic — but not Bob McNichols. He escaped the fire, and thanks to the defense of firefighters, so did his house. Most of his neighbors were not as fortunate; his house was surrounded by scorched lots.

When McNichols and his wife moved back into their home about 50 days after the blast, it was still behind a police line, and visitors had to be escorted in. For a while after moving in, the silence in the neighborhood was overwhelming.

“For the first couple months, there was absolutely nothing, so we’re kind of enjoying the activity,” he said.

If all this activity continues as planned, the Hensels could be moving into their future home by the end of the year. That is remarkable, considering that just a year ago, Hensel stood over melted ponds of glass, the only relics of his wife’s carefully collected assortment of fine crystal, in the midst of a panorama of charcoal. Now his wife is beginning to collect again; a search for a new display cabinet is likely in their future. They’ve been told they only have until September 2012 to replace everything they own if they wish to be reimbursed for it.

Hensel doubts his wife will manage to make that deadline.

“It took many years to put it all together, it’s difficult to replace on such short notice,” he said. For  Tina Pellegrini, it was an easy decision to move back to the “wonderful neighborhood” their family had lived in since 1975. She said her family was simply waiting to find out if PG&E would rebuild the pipeline; once the company agreed to permanently disconnect the line, they knew they’d move back to the neighborhood. However, she said she understands folks who decide they cannot return.

“As far as I’m concerned, they’ll always be a part of the neighborhood — always,” she said.

Rebuilding and moving on

Many homeowners are planning to return.

38 Homes destroyed by pipeline explosion

7 Destroyed homes that have received permits to rebuild

6 Destroyed homes that have rebuilding applications under city review

11 Destroyed homes that are in the pre-application process to rebuild

3 Destroyed homes purchased by PG&E, no immediate plans to rebuild

11 Unknown whether they will rebuild or not

92 Lawsuits against PG&E by survivors

320 Individuals involved in the lawsuits

Sources: City of San Bruno; Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy LLP


Small city steps up to challenge

At the San Bruno City Council meeting at the end of August last year, the mayor presented certificates of achievement to a local softball team, the council discussed a street paving grant, and then  they heard a contentious plan to change the city’s parking restriction zones.

At the next City Council meeting, scarcely three weeks later, there was just a single item on the agenda: “Conduct town hall meeting concerning gas pipeline and fire disaster.”

In the interim, seven of the town’s 41,000 residents had died in that disaster, and an eighth was on death’s doorstep. Mayor Jim Ruane and several City Council members had spent several sleepless nights helping traumatized residents find shelter, coordinating first responders, and handling a media circus that had suddenly sprung up in a local grocery store parking lot.

“In terms of a small-city mayor, you think in terms of balancing budgets in a hard economic time, of getting the calls about the potholes and tree trimming — all of the things that small-city mayors do,” Ruane said. “And then Sept. 9 changed everything.”

It wasn’t just the lives of displaced residents or bereaved families that changed on Sept. 9, 2010: The course of an entire city was altered. Teachers at local schools suddenly had traumatized children in their classes; police officers had to sit for long hours guarding the “crime scene” for months; city employees suddenly found their entire job descriptions changed.

Many city employees have taken on much more work than were asked to prior to the disaster. Ruane said many have “adopted” five or six residents in the disaster zone to be the city liaison to — and that’s on top of their day-to-day jobs of running the city.

And as the Crestmoor neighborhood has begun rebuilding, the city must handle more planning, permitting and community development than they’ve seen in a long time.

But Ruane said the extra work has served to bring the community together.

“We were always a very, very tight community. Peninsula cities have their own identities, and we had ours — it was very strong,” Ruane said. “And this has brought us even closer together.”  

San Bruno at a glance

1914 Year San Bruno became a city

1,400 Population at the time

41,114 San Bruno’s population now

15,536 Housing units

60.8 Percent of homes occupied by owners

38.8 Median age of city residents

$32.2 million City’s general fund budget

Source: City of San Bruno, Census 2010

City responds: San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane consoles a survivor of the San Bruno blast. (Mike Koozmin/The Examiner)

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Katie Worth

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