San Bruno's Own Public Hell

I am going out the front door of my office when my cell buzzes in my bag. It's my mom. She sounds panicked. She says something about a huge explosion near her house and she doesn't know what to do and then she has to go. She says she'll be in contact later. I'm puzzled and worried and mention it to my coworker as we head for the train station.

I take my seat on the 6:27 train leaving San Francisco and then proceed to text my boyfriend with the little information I have from my mom's scary and cryptic phone call.  I don't hear anything from my mom on the way home and I fall asleep on the train, frightened, but lulled by the train's familiar rocking and my own mental self-assurances.  As the train pulls up to the San Bruno station, I see a huge plume of black smoke emanating from the west, but still very close by.  A man in scrubs waiting to get off the train at the same stop as me says he heard it was a plane crash. Stunned, I exit the train in hopes that my parents know to come to my house if something is wrong.

As I pull into the driveway, I see my mom standing on the sidewalk in front of my house with my dog, Ruby.  My dad is there too, with his removable cast on and his crutch from fracturing his leg a couple weeks earlier.  My mom hugs me and tells me she didn't know where else to go.  A man I have never seen before is with them.  She says he is their neighbor, and he was alone, so they took him with them.

I start to put my stuff down once I'm in my house.  My parents are mulling about and getting water and the neighbor is sitting on our couch, watching the news.  My mother whispers to me that he has brain damage.  I see Ruby run by, and then I see something else moving in the dog door.  Disoriented by the evening's occurrences, for a few moments I think that my fear of wild animals finally figuring out that this is an entrance to my house is coming to fruition before my eyes.  I gasp and then realize it's the neighbor's dog, who is Ruby's favorite playmate.  They follow each other around the house wagging their tails, seemingly unaware of the disaster that was befalling their neighborhood. Eventually they grow tired, and fall to the floor to relax and nap in a heap, the way only dogs and young children seem to be able to do.

All channels are covering the disaster and calls and text messages begin to flood our cell phones.  We're safe, we're safe, we say again and again.  I hear my mother have to tell her story over and over.  She does all the communicating, as my dad left his wallet and cell phone when they were evacuated.  She was preparing dinner for her and my dad when she saw and heard a huge explosion out her kitchen window.  She could feel the warmth in her kitchen as she saw the flames down the hill from her house and she screamed.  Calling 9-1-1 gave her a busy signal over and over, and she didn't know what to do other than go outside.  Police were there within ten minutes and she was ordered to drive her car out and park on the street outside of their cul-de-sac, Glenview.  She tried to run back to the house to retrieve my dad, since he can't drive with his cast, but police stopped her until she frantically explained she had to get her husband.  She got my dad in the car, who had been taking pictures and was mesmerized by the flames.  He had never seen anything so big and terrifying in his life.  He would later tell me the flames were taller than the church at the top of the hill and far taller, by at least a hundred feet, than any of the largest trees in the area.  It was then that she saw the neighbor and their dog mulling around outside their house and got them into the car too.  They were directed to the grocery store at the top of the hill, and then my mother persuaded police officers to let her retrieve her second car that she had left on Glenview.  My dad was able to take his boot cast off and drive the couple miles down to my house so that they'd at least have their cars if their house burned down. 

I feel numb.  My parents and the neighbor are not hungry.  After a while of watching the news, I don't know what else to do and begin eating leftovers.  I make some rice and some chicken patties from the freezer.  My parents eat a little bit, but the neighbor insists that he's fine.  My mom continues desperately to try and find some way to reach his family.  He only remembers one number, but somehow it's enough and within a few hours, we find our other neighbors, his family, and they come to pick him and their dog up with big hugs and thank yous. 

We watch the news for a while longer before getting ready for bed, as it becomes evident there is no way that they will be able to return to their house that night.  I insist that my parents sleep on my bed, and grab Ruby to let her sleep on the couch with me. 

My parents are up early as usual, probably around 6:30a, and we turn the news back on to see if we can find any additional news about what has happened.  Numbers of affected homes are thrown out left and right and reports as high as 170 homes and seven dead come across the airwaves.  My mom seems flustered still, which prompts me to send an email to my work to tell them I'm working from home so that my parents don't have to be alone.  It doesn't seem to matter how many times I see the footage on the television of the area; it just doesn't seem real.  I just cannot seem to super-impose the images I see on the screen over the memories I have of the neighborhood of my past.  I cannot imagine that Glenview, the street that I used to walk down with one of my best friends to visit her house on Plymouth, could now have a huge crater in it filled with water, dirt, sewage, and huge pieces of a broken gas pipe.  I don't feel anything, and the guilt of the numbness peppers my thoughts.  

I accompany my mom to Trader Joe's to pick up some food.  I don't have much ready food around the house; I tend to live off of leftovers, and don't cook a whole lot, even though I bake like it's going out of style. We head back with groceries and have a little breakfast with my dad while we continue to gawk at the news.  My mom stops by the San Bruno Rec Center to check in and get more information, but still no one knows when they'll be getting back in their house.  I have one eye on the news, and one on my laptop to do work, but soon the local news stops, and the infomercials begin.  

The morning turns into afternoon, and then it's evening again.  My day is infused with my mother's nervous energy as she tries to clean up my house in efforts to dissipate it.  She's never really been able to sit and relax for long periods of time, and I'm sure waiting around to find out if her house burned down didn't really contribute to her ability to rest.  In the meantime, my grandmother sends me Y! instant messages in a casual way that lets me know she's completely forgotten about the fire already, and doesn't understand what's happening.  My mother always reminds me and my dad that we should be grateful she can even use instant messenger, and that we should continue to encourage it, because it probably keeps her brain more active. 

As dinnertime rolls around, my mom and I pick up some bbq from a nearby restaurant and I eat with my parents.  People call throughout the day and evening to ask us if there is any update, but we only know as much as what's on the news.  After dinner, I take Ruby out for a walk, but I can't shake the cloud that seems to be covering my consciousness in a haze, so when I get back, I head off to the gym for a little workout. My parents are still watching the news when I return.

Soon, it's bedtime again, and this time I let Ruby sleep on the other couch.  

After having some breakfast, I start baking.  My dad said he wanted some oatmeal raisin cookies, and although my mom may use her nervous energy to clean, I use mine to bake.  I putter around in the kitchen for a while and then eventually get cleaned up because my boyfriend is coming over.  My mom leaves to check in at the Rec Center again to see if they have any other news or supplies.  After a few hours, she comes back with the news that she and my dad can stay at Embassy Suites, she got a Visa gift card from PG&E, and a check would be coming from their insurance company.  By then my boyfriend had arrived and we were all sort of trying to figure out what to do with ourselves in the house.  

The day passes as normally as it can.  My boyfriend and I take the dog to Fort Funston to try and get a little fresh air and exercise, and then we come back and attempt to make dinner for my parents.  Earlier in the day we had decided to try our hand at preparing beef tongue in the crockpot.  When we come home from the beach, we slice it up and it is surprisingly good, although not something we'd ever want to try again, I think.  My parents just appreciated not having to cook.  After dinner, they are off to Embassy Suites, and we relax and get ready for bed.

My mom finds out that she can get a pass to get into their house today.  She's upset that the local news starts narrating over the important information of the timing of when each area gets to go back into their houses.  We get word that we need to go to Skyline College to get the passes for Estates Drive, and so we do.  My mom goes first, and my dad and I go back to my house to pick up some of the groceries we bought as well as my camera.  She calls and tells us to meet her at the grocery store near our house, because that's where the police will be escorting us into the area.  

I'm still in a haze of numbness.  I find my mom looking around for a phone to call us with inside the grocery store.  Neither of our cell phones had been working.  She's relieved to see us and we hop in the cars to follow the police escort to my parents' house, through the blockade.  I'm not used to driving my parents' car and a police officer tells me to slow down, and thanks us for our patience.  

Despite the hours of video footage I'd seen, and photo after photo on the news, I'm not prepared to see down the hill on Glenview.  It's almost like a desert development area, with the construction equipment and mounds of dirt where there used to be trees and houses.  I can't even tell where the little park where I played when I was in grade school used to be.  "Oh my God, oh my God," I keep saying over and over to my dad, who is sitting in the passenger seat next to me.  It's the first time I actually feel something, and I'm not sure if I'm relieved or terrified.

It turns out my parents are the first ones back at their house.  PG&E trucks line the sidewalks in the cul-de-sac and workmen are scurrying about trying to get power back on.  There is a little gas leak at the house right next to my parents' place, and it is fixed immediately. PG&E employees are friendly, efficient, and apologetic, but I realize that even though the public is angry at the PG&E entity, it is only made up of people who are doing their jobs, and everyone working that day just wants everyone in this little neighborhood in San Bruno to be able to go home and feel safe again.  It can't have been any of their faults, but the manager handing out grocery store gift cards to help replace all the spoiled food in the refrigerators acts like it could be, and all he wants to do is help.  

News reporters begin to trickle in, and my parents are interviewed and photographed multiple times by local news stations and by the LA Times.  [My mom sent me a link to the video today, Monday, but really I was just trying to hide from them.] Later one of the neighbors comes by and tells us we have to see down the hill from our other neighbor's backyard, where the family of one of my best friends from high school lives, two doors down from my parents.  Firemen had knocked down their fence to stop the fire from coming up the hill onto their block. The house just down the hill is black and charred and it causes me to inhale deeply. 

After talking with the neighbors for a little while longer and staring dumbstruck at the charred area that used to be a familiar street, I head back to my parents' house with my mom.

I help my mother set out the lunch she bought at the grocery store and we all sit and eat together.  My dad admits guiltily that he wants to see the pictures he took of the flames.  He heads off to the computer room after lunch.  These are some of his pictures.

My mother and I plod over to the kitchen where warm, unpleasantly sour smells greet our nostrils as we open the refrigerator to start the task of throwing away all the expiring food, a small price to pay in this disaster when compared to others.  Latest numbers show 37 homes destroyed, eight homes badly damaged, and four fatalities. 

The day's chores came to a close after many trips to the dumpster that had been placed at the opening of the cul-de-sac to accept a block's worth of rotting food, and my parents began their next long term task of getting to know their neighbors better.  There are story and phone number exchanges, talk of future block parties that have never happened but should have and will in the future, and even some comforting smiles, despite the events of the past few days.  The neighbors tend to agree that even though it was horrifying and devastating, there is nothing quite like the trauma of a disaster that can cause the members of community to open their hearts like they were never able to before. 


  1. Stacey ... Thanks so much for writing this. It's an account of an unbelievable event. I am so sorry for all the pain and suffering of all involved, at the same time so very happy that Nancy & Gary are absolutely safe!

  2. WOW... thanks for sharing your perspective. I appreciate hearing such an in-depth story instead of just seeing the brief updates by our local news (in Orange County). I constantly got goosebumps while reading your account of the events. WAY too close to home. Which Mills friend's family house was that?? I don't know of any of our friends who actually lost homes. I am glad to hear you and your family are okay. How are they coping with the event?

  3. That was Helen's house with the fence. Erica Reinhardt's house was the one I used to go to on Plymouth. Thanks for all the kind words everyone. :)

  4. Oh, and my parents I think are still a little in shock. Mostly grateful and sad for their neighbors who did not fare as well.

  5. Great writing Stacy. I hope things start to look up really soon. I saw the event unfold on the news from Alabama and all I could do was call people. It was really frustrating. I'm sorry that you an your family had to go through this. I still can't believe something like this could happen

  6. Stacey,

    quite a wonderful, in-depth chronicle of a horrifying disaster. so much heartache for so many people.
    thank you for your perspective and thank goodness your parents are alright and that their house is still standing.

    barbara sokol

  7. Hi Stacey,
    So sorry to hear about what you, your parents and community are going through. Wanted to tell you how moving and heartfelt your blog entries did a great job in capturing this experience through your writing, as did your dad through his photography. Thanks for sharing. Please let us know if there's anything my Mom & sisters can do at this time. Please take goodcare. Sami (Auntie Sandy's daughter)


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