Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle

Witnessing the San Bruno Pipeline Explosion

Almost five years ago on September 9th, 2010, my family and I went through the scariest event of our lives: A huge gas pipeline explosion just down the street from us.

How close exactly? Our address was 110 Crosby Court, San Bruno CA. which put us exactly 0.142 miles (0.228 km), or 249 yards away.

https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=z10FlrkE-ELA.kzsn1BmRoiRg&hl=en

The really terrifying part is that there used to be a little playground about a stone’s throw from the explosion epicenter. Just to the right of the little red exclamation point in the above graphic. My wife would take our kids down there every few days to burn off some afternoon energy. It boggles my mind today to think that they were playing nearly right on top of a time bomb that was set for 54 years, and was ready to go off at any second. Thankfully they weren't there on the day it finally did.

A not uncommon trip to the playground on August 10th, 2010.

Going through our digital photos and videos from the day, I found things that cause me to have some very strong feelings. Here are the kids playing in our backyard at 12:34 pm, on the day of the explosion, a mere 5.5 hours beforehand.

12:34 pm

There was no way we could have known what was about to happen.

It was a work day on September 9th, a Thursday, and thanks to sheer dumb luck I had made arrangements to leave an hour early that day, leaving at 5 pm instead of 6 pm. That means I had already been home and with the family for a half hour beforehand. It would have been an even worse nightmare for me had I been home an hour later.

By 6 pm we had already put our youngest down in his crib for the night, and I was helping our three year old take his evening bath. My wife was in the bedroom reading a book.

Then at exactly 6:11 pm, I heard an incredibly loud whooshing-roar. I didn't hear any sort of detonation, or sudden explosion sound that you might hear in an action movie. Just a sudden on-set of very loud noise. My split second thought was that it sounded like we were standing right next to a huge waterfall. Like Niagara Falls. A split second later as primitive attempts at logic formed in my brain, it started to sound like the roar of an airplane. And a split second later I was running to the window to try and figure out what was happening.

Sudden heat and orange light flooded my senses when I looked out. A huge jet of fire was pluming up towards the sky some little ways away. I could feel a lot of heat on my skin even though the glass window was closed. A half second later my wife got to the window too.

I’ll always be proud of what we did next. We were only standing at the window for two or three seconds before we moved right in to action. We ran right for the kids- my wife went to get our youngest and I to the bathroom for our eldest. We had absolutely no idea what was happening outside (Plane crash? Gas line rupture? Car bomb? Something else?) but we had the immediate impression of extreme danger and acted on instinct as we gathered our family together. And we moved very fast. Our fear was simple: that whatever blew up over there might also blow up over here. So get out, NOW.

We ran out the front door with our kids. I hurriedly put our still naked and soaking wet son in the backseat as my wife did the same with our youngest (who was just rudely awoken), and we drove off down to the next subdivision. It all happened in the space of a minute.

From here we were able to stop and try to get a handle on what was happening. From beyond our immediate horizon (near-by houses and trees) we could see that the jet of fire was still going up. After 15 minutes or so we could see that the entire neighborhood wasn't exploding or that a fissure in the earth hadn't opened to devour San Bruno. And it was only then that we realized that we had left without cell phones, my wallet or my wife’s purse, or clothing for my son. We didn't even bother to close the front door.

So we decided to go back cautiously and collect our essentials. It was because of this that we were able to get some media of what was unfolding with our digital camera:

Taken from our car window on our second departure at 6:35 pm, 24 minutes afterwards.
6:35 pm

We didn't stay there for long. But we also didn't know where we should go, so we found a place to park about four times our original distance to try and survey the scene. Was our house burning down? Maybe, who knows?

7:14 pm, primary streets in to subdivision blocked off
7:14 pm

In this next video you can see a fire engine racing away from the fire. This is because the explosion destroyed the nearest water line and thus the firefighters were forced to refill their tanks away from ground zero. Meanwhile, it was more than an hour before PGE, the gas company that owned the pipeline in question, was able to shut off the gas feeding the blaze.

7:14 pm
7:22 pm, police have blocked off adjacent streets now
7:22 pm, more footage

By now of course we were sure that we were out of immediate danger. We had also had time to call our closest relatives and let them know the basics of what had just happened (so far as we knew) and that we were OK. Fortunately, my uncle who lived with his family in Napa and had offered to take us in until we knew what to do next. We’ll always be grateful for their open arms and hospitaity.

Before starting the hour and a half trip north though, we tried to adjust our vantage and get one more look at the scene to try and see if we still had somewhere to live.

7:32 pm, this view was from the south-west of our house, looking down slightly from a hill.
7:35 pm

A little further along the same road we got a slightly better look:

7:44 pm, awful.
Many came to look on

I’ll never forget the callus stupidity of a statement uttered by an on looker here: “We need to get some marsh mellows to toast by the campfire!”… I’ll never forget hearing it, and I’ll always regret not turning to look at whoever said it to confront them. Didn't they realize people were very likely dying here? If I could only redo that moment.

The fire did spread, but it only spread to the east- away from our house. The part of San Bruno that we lived in was quite windy, being perched up above the surrounding area. But the wind always pushed from west to east, and we were to the west of the explosion. In total, the incident caused 8 casualties, 58 injuries and 35 homes were destroyed. And we were very, very fortunate.

7:47 pm, leaving the scene for good.

You can read more about the incident at Wikipedia:

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