September 9 will mark the one-year anniversary of the San Bruno pipeline explosion and subsequent fire in which eight people were killed and 38 homes destroyed. Leading up to the anniversary, Amy Standen of KQED QUEST is interviewing survivors of the disaster. This is Part Two of the series; you can listen to Part 1 here.
“No matter how fast or how hard you tried to move, the house just kept sucking you back in.”
The Zapata family were in their house on Earl Avenue when the explosion occurred. Their home was damaged but not destroyed. During the fire, Tammy and her daughter transported their neighbor, Joseph Ruigomez, to the hospital. He’d been watching the football game with his girlfriend, Jessica Morales, who died in the blaze. Ruigomez was badly injured but survived.
Audio: Tammy Zapata describes transporting a burnt neighbor to the hospital during the fire
Amanda was sitting here on the couch, watching TV. I was cooking, as usual. See how all those big trees are like that? No matter how high up you looked, all you could see was fire. You couldn’t see anything. My daughter was so freaked out that she couldn’t move. And Mike kept trying to get her out of the house, he actually picked her up and like tossed her. It wasn’t so much what you could see at that point, it was the noise. The noise was so loud, it was deafening. You couldn’t hear yourself, let alone anyone else. It sounded just like a plane crashed in our backyard.
We were trapped. When you’re in a dream and you’re trying to run as fast as you can, but you feel like you’re getting nowhere like you’re in quicksand? That’s how it felt. No matter how fast or how hard you tried to move, the house just kept sucking you back in.
And then when we got down the walkway, Joe came running up. He had no skin. It looked like he had a shredded t-shirt, but it was the skin all melted off him. His face was all white. You could hardly see features. In fact, he still had smoke coming off his entire body. When he tried to open the door to get in, he couldn’t. Because his hands were so badly burned.
That was like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I ran stop signs, stop lights, I made left turns through red lights. But I’m telling you, God drove, because everyone parted waters for us to get him there.
You know we can’t use our street anymore. So every day that reminds you. Even if you think you’re going to forget it, you’re not. And the sound of all the construction; you know it’s people who’ve lost their homes and are rebuilding. But you can’t forget it. You’ll never forget it. You may learn to deal with it, but you’ll never forget the sounds, and the smells, and the rest. You just can’t.
Here’s an eyewitness video of the conflagration, from the files of the National Transportation Safety Board:
All of our San Bruno Stories:
- Part 1: ‘I didn’t want to die. But then I go, whatever, I didn’t want my kids to die.’
- Part 2: ‘He still had smoke coming off his entire body.’
- Part 3: ‘The kids ask, ‘Why was the fire on our house?’
- Part 4: ‘I knew our house…[was] gone, but I was smiling…’
- Part 5: ‘She’s screaming into her cell phone, and all I heard was screaming’
- Part 6: ‘They cut corners, took shortcuts…’