How San Bruno Families Remember, and Recover From Disaster

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Phil Piserchio and his children, Jonah (10) and Phoebe (8), were able to return to their San Bruno home three months after the September 2010 gas pipeline explosion forced them to flee.  (Julie Small/KQED)

Jonah Piserchio was 5 years old and just sitting down to dinner with his family when a PG&E pipeline ruptured on Sept. 9, 2010.

“I remember before the fire started, the ground started shaking," he says, "and I thought it was an earthquake."

His home in the Crestmoor neighborhood of San Bruno was mere blocks from the blast site. Jonah's father, Phil Piserchio, says the family started to move toward a doorframe, but soon realized something unusual was happening.

"I’ve been in earthquakes before," he says, "but never past 10 seconds.”

Throughout, they heard a steady roar like an airplane engine. When the room got hot, they headed for the garage, glancing out a window on the way.

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“That’s when I saw a fire in the canyon, smoke in the front," says Phil. "I thought, 'Are we surrounded by fire, what’s going on?' ”

Jonah says his dad shouted to everyone to get in the car.

"And so we were, like, running in the car," says Jonah, "rolling up the windows so the smoke doesn’t get in our car.”

Across the street, Betti Magoolaghan -- who was pregnant and had three small children -- called her husband at his San Francisco office.

“I heard her say, ‘A plane crashed in our backyard,’ " says Bill Magoolaghan. "And I said, ‘Well, what are you doing?’ And she said ‘We're running.’ I said, ‘Keep running!’ ”

Fire crews started coming in from every direction. Fire Division Chief Kevin McWhirter was one of the early responders.

“Typically we won't get a lot of people that pull over for us as we respond, and this was unique and everyone was pulling over. So I think everybody out -- that either heard a blast or could see the column of smoke -- knew something big was going on.”

The Crestmoor neighborhood is still rebuilding, five years after the pipeline explosion.
The Crestmoor neighborhood is still rebuilding, five years after the pipeline explosion. (Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED)

The fire was so hot it cracked the windshield of the first engine to arrive.

Police started evacuating Crestmoor within minutes, going door to door and, in some cases, forcing people from their homes.

At a press conference the next morning, a visibly shaken fire chief described the blast site as “a moonscape.”

The devastation displaced many families for months and in some cases for years. Ten families never came back.

But these days the Crestmoor neighborhood buzzes with construction.

Of the 38 homes that were destroyed, 22 have been rebuilt and the families have returned to the neighborhood. A few lots will be used to rebuild a playground.

Phil Piserchio’s home withstood the disaster, but his scorched roof was as brittle as potato chips.

When he first checked on his place he found a thick layer of soot on the walls and on the floor. He could even see the tracks of firefighters who had gone through the house to build a firebreak in his backyard.

Piserchio and his two kids were back in their home by Christmas 2010. He says his son and daughter have had counseling, but they didn't seem afraid to move back in.

“They were totally excited -- super excited -- to come back to their rooms and everything," Piserchio says. "It was actually more scary for me to come back because at the time it was kind of like a ghost town.”

Looking out over his backyard from the deck, Piserchio points to a faint trail sloping away from his property.

“That little dirt, little path there," he says, "that's where the firebreak is that the firemen built. Which is kind of odd, I think -- after five years, it's not grown back.”

When Bill Magoolaghan was first allowed to return to his house, he says the water that had been used to douse the fire had rotted everything.

“There was a huge dumpster in our driveway.” Magoolaghan remembers. “Sofas were poking out, our TV was there. All of our clothes, all of our kids' toys were all in the dumpster. That was one of the toughest moments, to come and just see everything being thrown away.”

Bill Magoolaghan reads to his 4-year-old son, Cole, at their rebuilt home in San Bruno.
Bill Magoolaghan reads to his 4-year-old son, Cole, at their rebuilt home in San Bruno. (Julie Small/KQED)

The family spent 15 months in a rental while they gutted and rebuilt their home.

Magoolaghan says his children spent even longer in therapy for trauma.

“They were old enough to really understand what was going on and they were certainly very afraid," he says. "And that's, I think, what drove the nightmares that they had for the ensuing year or so and not being able to sleep.”

Magoolaghan says he hopes the five-year mark for the disaster will be a turning point for his family and the community.

“Things are going really good," he says. "The kids are healthy, the kids are happy, my wife is doing really well. So we don’t want to go backwards, we want to keep on moving forwards. The San Bruno blast will always be a part of us -- we can’t get rid of it -- but we don’t want to dwell on it.”

Impact area of the San Bruno explosion.
Impact area of the San Bruno explosion. (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration)

Magoolaghan is one of hundreds of people who have filed lawsuits against PG&E. So has the city of San Bruno.

City officials have spent $29 million in disaster response, and have devoted substantial resources to push for reforms they believe will make California’s natural gas pipelines safer.

City Manager Connie Jackson says the disaster made their jobs more demanding, but also more meaningful.

“This has been a profound moment for all of us to say: We really can make a difference, and if we don't, it would be worse.”

Jackson expects costs from the disaster to exceed the $50 million trust fund that PG&E has set up for the city.

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San Bruno holds a remembrance ceremony at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, at the blast site in Crestmoor.