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'The wind was red': In San Bruno explosion and fire, a glimpse of hell

SAN BRUNO, Calif.

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 San Bruno to San Francisco, 12 miles to the north. But more than anything, the subdivision nestled against the slopes of Crestmoor Canyon 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 were retired cops, preschool teachers, jet maintenance workers. They ran into each other at church, at the barbeque pits down at the park.

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. Kids were doing homework. Several residents were watching the first half of the Saints-Vikings game. One was feeding his dog, another watering flowers, another tidying her bedroom.

They had smelled it first, some of them — the smell of gas, for a week, maybe more.

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

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 that it didn't feel like an earthquake. Curious, she had a look 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 had scattered. He threw on a pair of shoes and ran to the garage. 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 cell phone attached to his belt.

Hensel's home 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, he realized that the tail light 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."

• • •

Residents' attachment to their neighborhood was not lost on the men who worked at the local firehouse, just down the hill from the blast. There, when the gas line ruptured, fire Capt. Charlie Barringer was in the jumbo jet camp — he thought one had crash-landed on them.

"It shook our station right to its foundation," he said.

Barringer sounded a four-alarm fire and headed out on Engine 52, the first truck to respond. Residents raced past them, in cars, on foot, some carrying pets, some in socks, one in a pink bathrobe.

The explosion had not only destroyed homes but also the water mains that fed the local hydrants. Crews had to string together hoses from hydrants that were two miles away.

"We were overwhelmed," said Barringer.

Left behind was a strange moonscape, still smoldering Friday. The air was thick and acrid. Tires on cars that had been parked on the street had melted, and trees were charred. Many houses were reduced to skeletons, with fireplaces visible and, at some, porch stairs that led to nothing.

"Where the fire was looks like London during the Blitz," said Rick Bruce, 54, a retired San Francisco police officer who has lived on Claremont for 30 years.

"It is devastating," said local historian Darold Fredricks, 77, who lives on a ridge overlooking the area destroyed. The victims, he said, "are starting to realize, hell, all of our history, our photographs, everything we've accumulated and saved, it's just absolutely gone."

• • •

Victims of the explosion waited in line to talk with insurers Friday at an evacuation center. They hugged each other and posed the question du jour: "How's your house?" Many still didn't know.

Pat Gillen, a 47-year resident, raised four children in the home where she watched the window blinds melt before fleeing. Maria Barr, a 69-year-old widow, is still surprised she managed to vault over the fence in her back yard to search for her neighbor, who uses a wheelchair.

Gayle Masunu, 59, and her 83-year-old mother were both in pajamas inside her mother's house on Claremont Drive when Masunu heard "something go voom, voom." She raced to a back bedroom to grab some clothes. There, the heat was so strong that it seared through her gray fleece and across her back and burned her left cheek.

Masunu, for now, has no desire to see what remains of the house. "Nothing really to see except ashes," she said.

She began to cry.

"Grandma, you can come play in my house," offered her 4-year-old grandson Giovanni Masunu Hernandez.

'The wind was red': In San Bruno explosion and fire, a glimpse of hell 09/11/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 11, 2010 12:19am]
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