One year after San Bruno blast: Survivors live amid the ashes 

Gene O’Neil and his carpool buddy were inching across the Bay Bridge toward home when he first saw a smudge of black rise from the horizon. Only a moment later, his friend received a text saying a plane had crashed into San Bruno.

As O’Neil started to call his daughter, whom he’d spoken to just a few minutes before about dinner plans, another text came through.

“He said it was my house and my kids and wife were burned. I said, ‘Man, that’s not funny,’” O’Neil recalled. “He said, ‘I’m not being funny. Your wife and kids are burned and your house is on fire, but other than that, everything’s OK.’”

Nearly a year later, O’Neil is able to laugh at the incongruity of that statement. At the time, though, it seemed like the first step of a descent into hell. That night, he would find himself in the hospital with his wife, whose scalp and back were burned, and his 23-year-old twin daughters, one of whom had third-degree burns on her skin.

Although they all felt awash with gratitude that they’d all survived — something a few of their neighbors could not say — they also felt intense grief when they realized they’d lost Tony and Buddy, two twin orange tabby cats that had been trapped in the attic when the fire hit.

“We’d like to think the sound scared them and they had heart attacks. But we know those poor beautiful animals probably burned alive in their own home,” O’Neil said.

The accident that left the O’Neils scarred and destroyed their home of 16 years — and killed eight of their neighbors — could have been averted. Federal investigators recently condemned PG&E for a “litany of failures” that led to the tragic rupture of one of its natural gas pipes underneath San Bruno on Sept. 9, 2010. The explosion suddenly and radically altered the course of the O’Neils’ lives and those of everyone in San Bruno’s Crestmoor neighborhood. The march toward recovery has been slow.

The O’Neils now live in a rental house in San Bruno. After first deciding they would rebuild, they all had second thoughts about it, and they ultimately decided they couldn’t do it. One daughter still has bandages on her arm. O’Neil’s wife is still grieving the loss of her mother’s carefully collected antique furniture.

As the anniversary approaches, their grief has felt more intense.

“As the year comes up, you’d think it should feel like some kind of passage, but it’s actually been harder in the last few weeks, with all the talk of the anniversary,” he said. “It’s not the kind of thing where you have cake and champagne. It’s more like we’re all gonna get together and feel miserable.”

That grief has become even more acute as they have begun the painstaking process of listing everything they lost. Initially, PG&E told O’Neil that they would be able to simply estimate the value of everything in their home as a whole. Then, they told him he had misunderstood.

“They want my wife to write down everything that was in the house. When she bought it. Where she bought it. How much she bought it for. What the brand name was,” said O’Neil, one of many residents suing the utility company.

“They’ve traumatized us once. Now they’re doing it again.”

 

‘We lost it all’

When Tina Pellegrini and her family decided to rebuild their home in San Bruno, they knew they couldn’t rebuild the home they lived in before, or the new house would be too haunted by the old house.

So they chose a brand new floor plan — one that would not have a hallway filled with horrible memories.

“We didn’t think that mentally it was good for our emotional well-being to build the same house, because the last memory we had of it was running down a hallway — [it would be] the same hallway,” she said. “Running through a door — [it would be] the same door.”

Pellegrini had spent 21 years walking through that hallway and that door before the blast; before that, her husband’s parents had lived in the house since November 1975.

That all ended at 6:11 p.m. on Sept. 9, when PG&E’s gas line blew up 157 feet from the home.

For a moment, they thought the neighbor’s home was on fire. Tina Pellegrini ran down the hall to grab a pair of shoes and her purse; her husband ran out the back door and turned on a hose, only to find it dry.

It was then they saw that the entire sky had been taken over by flames. Within a few seconds, their home was on fire.

“We ran out the gate, and it was already on fire, and we just ran,” she said. “It was so hot you couldn’t just stand there, you had to run.”

Though the heat was intense, they escaped physically unharmed. The family is still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she said. They are also still struggling with loss of their home.

“We lost everything we owned,” Pellegrini said. “All our memories — family pictures, all our vacation videos, our children’s baby pictures, the first this, the first that. The first tooth. My wedding pictures. My husband’s parents’ wedding pictures.

“I can replace the TV and I can replace the sofa, but these are the things I can never get back. We lost it all.”
Then she reconsidered her words.

“I shouldn’t say we lost it, because that implies that I had some control over it,” she said. “No, everything was taken from me.”

 

‘I never feel safe, no matter where I go’

Everywhere she goes now, Tammy Zapata is on the lookout for yellow bubbles on the road.

“I walk the streets and I look for the little yellow bubble that says there might be a land mine there,” she said.

The yellow dots are painted on roads and sidewalks under which large gas transmission pipelines lurk. Until Sept. 9 last year, Zapata had never noticed them. But after she spent terrorizing moments standing in a home that was dancing, leaping under her feet, rocked by a natural-gas pipeline explosion, she sees them everywhere she goes.

“One of those lines goes right by the Kaiser in South San Francisco. I mean, my god, can you imagine if it happened there?” she said.

Zapata, her husband and her 15-year-old daughter were just 500 feet from the point of rupture. Zapata describes the first moments of the escape “like that dream you have where you’re running but you can’t get anywhere.”

Their home was moving in ways they’d never imagined a house could move, “literally jumping up and down and sucking us in, it wouldn’t let us out.”

Her daughter’s fear had paralyzed her; she was unable to move until her father finally picked her up and threw her out the door. As they ran to the car, they saw a teenager sprinting toward them, his skin smoking. They drove him straight to a hospital. His girlfriend had not been so lucky — she perished in the flames.

A year later, Zapata and her family have moved back into their home. Though none of them bear physical scars from the fire, unseen wounds still make themselves apparent in their daily lives.

“I still haven’t gone back to work. I can’t remember things from one moment to the next, I can’t concentrate, I’ve had really bad nightmares — it’s horrible,” Zapata said. “Cooking is my favorite thing to do, and my family’s lucky if they get one meal a day.”

And she feels haunted by the yellow bubbles she now sees everywhere she goes.

“I never feel safe, no matter where I go,” she said. “Everyone asks how can we still live here, but I feel my neighborhood is probably safer than most people’s because we already blew up.”

 

‘Every morning is a wonderful thing’

When the house began to quake, Bob McNichol and his wife naturally expected it was just that — a quake.

But when they ran to a doorframe, as they’d been taught, they glanced out the front window and saw an entirely different phenomenon occurring.

“It looked like the air was swirling like a tornado. There were black spots swirling around in it,” he said. “We found out later it was natural gas that hadn’t been ignited yet, and the black spots were chunks of asphalt that had been blown off the road.”

It was a ghostly scene, one that “felt like it lasted three years,” although McNichol estimates it was probably more like several seconds.

And then, the world ignited.

Every direction became a panorama of flames. They ran through the back door and hid behind a fence for a moment, then realized they would be consumed by flames if they stayed.

It was as they were sprinting up the street toward the next shelter of a neighbor’s garage that an unlikely savior arrived: the winds that run from the coast to the Bay, sweeping over the Peninsula mountains and plaguing the Crestmoor neighborhood almost every day of the year.

The daily gusts had annoyed McNichol all 38 years he’d lived in the house.

“That gust is why we’re still here,” he said. “I’ll never say another unkind word about it again.”

The wind saved their lives, pushing the flames in the other direction, but it carried flames to many of the homes that were destroyed. The McNichols’ home would have a second savior: firefighters. Though almost every other home around theirs burned down, firefighters defended theirs as part of a successful attempt to keep the fire from snaking up a side street.

The exterior of their home required considerable repair, but they were able to move back in about 50 days after the blast. Their house was on the inside of a police line that surrounded the burnt area; for several months, friends and family needed an escort to come visit them.

But now, the area has opened up. The McNichols are now replanting their garden; from time to time they find a small asphalt fragment that fell from the sky that strange day last year.

“I’ll tell you, it really gives you a perspective and appreciation for being here. It was pretty touch and go there for a couple minutes,” he said. “Every morning is a wonderful thing.”

 

Shape of trials still unclear, but victims can expect PG&E to pay

Will PG&E be harshly fined by regulators for the San Bruno blast? Still unclear. Will PG&E shareholders have to pay for the overhaul of its gas pipeline system? Also unclear.

Will PG&E have to pay big-time to victims who were injured or lost homes or loved ones in the disaster? Crystal clear.

Some 92 lawsuits have been filed by San Bruno residents against Pacific Gas & Electric, involving more than 320 individuals, and they have all been consolidated under a single San Mateo County judge. There’s little doubt that the lawsuits will result in major payouts to the victims, but still under contention is whether the lawsuits will play out publicly or behind closed doors.

Attorneys for both sides agree there should be a trial over the extent of PG&E’s culpability in the disaster, but from there the strategies separate. PG&E would like the individual cases to be mediated, a plan the court has at least tentatively supported.

But attorney Frank Pitre, who represents plaintiffs in more than half the lawsuits filed against PG&E, said the problem with such a scheme is that all negotiations over punitive damages would happen behind closed doors, and the results of the mediations would be confidential. That means some neighbors might negotiate much higher sums than others without knowing about that discrepancy, he said.

“The only way to have confidence in the civil justice system is to ensure there’s going to be a public proceeding,” Pitre said. “And a public proceeding has to be open and transparent — it can’t be conducted on the 15th floor of a downtown financial center building, where people are sworn to secrecy.”

Survivors’ attorneys have suggested a trial on PG&E’s liability, and then the jury would be presented with several cases, each an example of a category of victim. One case may be representative of people who lost loved ones to the disaster, another representative of people who lost homes, and so on.

Company spokesman Joe Molica said PG&E has advanced the mediation proposal because it “would allow for a much faster and efficient means to the resolution of these claims which the plaintiffs deserve.”

San Bruno survivor and plaintiff Tammy Zapata said she hopes whatever the outcome, the penalties for PG&E will be steep.

“As far as I’m concerned, PG&E should have to pay so much that they go out of business,” she said. “I don’t see how they can still possibly be providing gas to anyone after what they did to San Bruno.”

kworth@sfexaminer.com

 

PG&E payouts

In the days after the San Bruno disaster, PG&E promised to set aside $100 million in a “Rebuild San Bruno” fund to provide assistance to the community, which is separate from the residents’ lawsuits. About one-third of that has been paid out.

  • $7 million: Amount paid to residents for property damage and medical bills
  • $5 million:  Paid to programs focused on rebuilding
  • $21 million: Amount paid to the city of San Bruno and other government agencies
  • $33 million: Total paid out so far

Source: PG&E

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Katie Worth

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