San Bruno Stories: “I knew our house and the greatest cats in the world were gone, but I was smiling…”

Gene O'Neil and family

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, KQED is interviewing survivors of the disaster. This is Part 4; click here for Parts 1-3.

Gene O’Neil has lived in San Bruno for over 30 years. His wife Kris and his twin 23-year-old daughters, Colleen and Mary, were at their house one block off Skyline when the explosion hit; he was on his way home from work.

The family’s house was burned to the ground, “chimney-only,” O’Neil says.

An edited transcript follows each audio clip.

Audio: Gene O’Neil on what happened the day of the fire :http://ww2.kqed.org/news/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2011/09/sanbrunogene1.mp3|titles=sanbrunogene1

Me and a buddy who lived in San Bruno were driving home from work. We were on the Bay Bridge stuck in traffic, and all of a sudden we see this explosion off in the distance. We both live in San Bruno, it’s hard to judge from the bridge, but we both say, that could be our neighborhood. But we say, nah, because it’s never your house, it’s always somebody else’s.

We turned on the radio and it said a plane had crashed on Skyline. I live one block off of Skyline. We immediately tried to call home and I couldn’t reach anybody.

My buddy got a call, and he said, ‘it’s your neighborhood.’ I said man that’s not funny. He said I’m not being funny; it’s on Glenview, in that area where the gas station is.

A while goes by, and finally my friend got a call saying my house is on fire, the kids and Kris were burned, but they’re okay. We were stuck on the bridge for a while; we eventually got off and took all back roads trying to get to San Bruno.

We ended up going to a neighbor’s house and my family was still there. They had waited; they were concerned that since I had just talked to them a few minutes before the blast, that I was going to have a heart attack when I saw what the hell happened to the house and the neighborhood. They wanted to wait and let me see that they’re burned but alive. And then we all went to the emergency room together.

My wife and kids had run from this tremendous ball of orange fire. They described it as you didn’t have to look back to see it, it was over them, like being in a broiler. Even though flames never hit them directly, one of my daughters got third degree burns on her arm. My other daughter got second degree burns, part of my wife’s hair caught on fire and her back was burned. But they heard the noise and ran outside and saw this fireball and ran for their lives.

My daughter was the first to see me when I got to a friend’s house. I could see she was crying and in pain. The first thing she said was Buddy and Tony are dead. Our cats were 17 years old, they lived in our house for 16. They didn’t make it out, they were sleeping in the loft, we think. The pain and the suffering on my daughter’s face were just unbelievable; I see that face when I think of what’s happened.

On the flip side, they all said daddy, you were smiling. And I was, because I was so glad to see them. I know we lost our house because they said the house is totally gone. And I knew they’d just told me the greatest cats in the world were gone, but the most important things to me were standing right in front of me. They’re burned and they’re suffering, but man, there they are. Eight people died, and so many of our friends are still badly burned, still getting grafting. So when they say you had a smile, you bet your ass I did.

Audio: On the response from the community and from PG&E :http://ww2.kqed.org/news/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2011/09/sanbrunogene2.mp3|titles=sanbrunogene2

The immediate community response was amazing. From the City of San Bruno, my goodness, you couldn’t ask for more out of a city and county of a community. When we got out of the emergency room that night there were 16-18 people in the waiting room waiting for us, and the support we had…

Initially PG&E stepped up. The day after, they were giving out credit cards with $1000 on them. PG&E’s approach when it first started, you had the president or the CEO say they are going to make people in San Bruno whole, they were sorry, they ran an ad.

And you know what? That was a nice ad and a nice thing to say, but that’s all it was. They have no more intention of making people whole then they do in lowering your rates. That’s not in the plan right now. It’s gone from making people whole to the last PG&E spokesman saying they’re committed to doing what they could to help out. That’s a far cry.

What is happening is that people have to go through the insurance process before PG&E will deal with you. We’re being run through the insurance mill. My wife is looking at 88 pages in small print of all the inventory, when did you buy it, how much is it worth now. And the insurance companies are not being kind to anyone in this tragedy.

PG&E should step up and say, man, we’re not running you through the insurance mill. They said they were going to make the people of San Bruno whole. They are not. They are not.

Audio: On the aftermath for his family :http://ww2.kqed.org/news/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2011/09/sanbrunogene3.mp3|titles=sanbrunogene3

My family is overwhelmed easily now. All of a sudden decisions are too heavy. The emotions start.

It’s a result of them being in the fire. Everything that they would depend on for comfort was gone, and this was the time they needed that. You needed that security blanket. And truly our cats were comforts, particularly to the kids. First thing they’d do is come home and grab one of the cats. Or lie down with the blanket from when they were little, or the feel-good movie you’d watch over and over again – all that stuff’s gone.

Note: PG&E spokeswoman Brittany Chord responded to Gene O’Neil’s statements about the company with the following:

We can’t go into specifics about any one customer, but we want to resolve the claims of all residents affected by this tragedy as quickly as possible. We have relationship managers for the residents who were impacted. Those relationship managers are available to help these residents in any way we can. We understand that residents are frustrated by this process, and we share that, and our goal is to find a resolution as quickly as possible.

Update: Gene O’Neil responds to PG&E’s above statement this way:

Let me say that the relationship managers are available, polite and professional. However, they work with the tools and programs that PG&E provides.

If PG&E wanted “to resolve the claims of all residents affected by this tragedy as quickly as possible” they could. What’s stopping them? They are running the victims through the insurance grind. List everything you owned, when you bought it, how much you paid, etc. Let the insurance companies do their thing of depreciating the items claimed, eliminate or reduce the amount of repairs; get that number as low as possible. Then turn you over to PG&E for final (?) negotiations.

Not only does it prolong the process but it hurts everyone again as they have to relive everything they lost and you can’t help remember how it was lost. It’s an arduous and painful process. They share the frustration with the process? Whose process is it? It’s theirs!

Frustrated with it? Change it; PG&E put the process in place. “…and our goal is to find a resolution as quickly as possible.” It’s a year later and people are still trying to get back into their homes as they fight with insurance companies over wiring, roofing, windows, baby mattresses, etc.

I guess that can be one of their goals since their goals don’t seem to mean much. I remember one was community safety.

All of our San Bruno Stories:

Author

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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