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A quiet suburb is shattered

After the gas line explosion in San Bruno, it was hard to remember that it was just another Thursday in a neighborhood distinguished by conventional, middle-class stability.

September 10, 2010|By Maria L. LaGanga, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Bruno and Los Angeles — They lived on narrow, interwoven streets with names that smacked of sturdy suburbia: Concord Way, Glenview Drive.

There had been some change in recent years — new faces, new money as young professionals discovered that it was a workable commute from the town of San Bruno to San Francisco, 12 miles to the north. But more than anything, the subdivision was a place distinguished by conventional, middle-class stability.

They lived in modest, ranch-style houses, most built during a housing boom that followed World War II. They shaped their junipers and played basketball in their driveways. They were retired cops, preschool teachers, jet maintenance workers.

They knew one another, and not just by waving on the way to work in the morning. Neighborhood fixtures were the rule; many had lived here for 30, 40 years, some in the same house where they grew up. One resident was there to watch workers dig trenches and install gas lines in 1957.

Now there is a 30-foot-wide crater in the middle of the neighborhood, where a 30-inch gas line ruptured and erupted Thursday in a massive plume of fire. The scope of the disaster is becoming clearer: four confirmed deaths, including a 44-year-old woman and her young daughter. At least 38 homes were destroyed, and a team of rescue workers and dogs trained to search for cadavers combed through the wreckage Friday. At least 52 burn victims were treated at hospitals..

It's hard to remember that it was just another evening — a Thursday, a little after 6. The kids were doing their homework, some of the first of the new school year. Several residents were watching the first half of the Saints-Vikings football game. One was feeding his dog, another watering his flowers, another tidying up her bedroom.

They'd smelled it first, some of them — the smell of gas.

They felt it next — low and steady, as if the earth was growling, then with a sudden urgency that shook the foundations of their houses.

They all assumed it was one of two things: an earthquake or the crash-landing of a jumbo jet.

Kaila Uniacke, 17, was in the earthquake camp. She raced into her brother Kevin's bedroom, and the two of them huddled under a desk. But after a while, she realized it didn't feel like an earthquake. Curious, she looked outside. Most of them did.

"The wind," she said, "was red."

Bob Hensel, 71, a retired firefighter for the city of San Bruno, was in the den watching TV.

"It sounded like I was standing at the wrong side of a jet engine," he said. "Stuff started hitting the house. It got warm and very orange and bright out. I … realized I had to get the heck out."

Hensel allowed himself a minute to search for the cats, Zoe and Buckwheat, but they'd scattered. He threw on a pair of black lace-up shoes and ran to the garage, no time to grab his wallet, hearing aid, pills. The power was out, so he scrambled to open the garage manually. Everything saved was attached to his body — the eyeglasses hanging from his shirt collar, the cellphone attached to his belt.

Hensel's home, on a hill in the 1100 block of Fairmont Drive, was the last one leveled in the blaze, the house to the south of him gone too, the house to the north of him untouched.

He fled, barreling down the street on the edge of a fire that authorities say may have reached 1,200 degrees. On Friday, outside an evacuation center set up in San Bruno's Veterans Memorial Recreation Center, he realized that the taillight lenses on his car were distorted by the heat, the paint on the bumper peeled and blistered.

Hensel's son, Rob, works for the city and was able to sneak back into the neighborhood to get a look at the house.

"Desolation," Rob said. "Surreal. A Hollywood set."

There was a filing cabinet that didn't burn. A toolbox. Part of the chimney.

"Other than that, all ashes," Hensel said. "I lost my home. I lost my identity."

San Bruno's identity was forged in the ashes of another disaster: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which killed at least 3,000. Much of the damage associated with that landmark event has been linked to the subsequent fires that leveled 500 city blocks — started, for the most part, by ruptured gas lines.

The quake left more than 300,000 people homeless. Sensing opportunity, developers began building hundreds of homes in the southern suburbs. Until then, San Bruno was farmland and wilderness, home to a few hundred people and a train station along the route from San Jose to San Francisco. After the quake, the town grew steadily.

During World War II, the Army took over San Bruno's famed Tanforan Racetrack, where thoroughbred horses raced, using it as an internment camp for Japanese Americans. They also built a massive staging area for troops headed for the Pacific. Many of those soldiers settled there after the war, driving the population from 6,500 to 35,000 by the mid-1960s. There are about 41,000 residents today.

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