Victims pick up the pieces; heroes' stories emerge

Bobby Petrini and Mary Sweeney

September 16, 2010 10:01:34 AM PDT
As many of the San Bruno Fire victims begin to pick up the pieces, stories of heroics in the face of the fire continue to emerge.

Men rescue elderly women

There is a story emerging of incredible heroics in San Bruno. Three men rescued six women in their 80s and 90s from the Golden Era Care Home close to the blast site.

When the fire erupted, it approached the women's house and started to burn into their backyard. They were being looked over by two caretakers, one abandoned them and the other was immobilized by fear. Help came in the form of total strangers.

"It sounded like the world was ending above the tree line up there, my dad and I were in our backyard and it was just a natural instinct to run up there and see what happened," rescuer Bobby Petrini said..

Petrini, his dad Bob and a man they had never seen before named Frank descended on Vermont Way to see who needed help. Quite literally, they stumbled into the home with the women -- none were able to make it out on their own.

"So I ran in and got one lady, and then we walked down the hallway and saw another and another, and one by one we just grabbed them and brought them out," Petrini said.

But there was one woman still in the house, Mary Sweeney. Her son Ken found out about the heroism hours later.

"Those were a tough few hours, not knowing whether she was alive or dead," Ken Sweeney said.

"It wasn't until my dad said, 'Let's go back and check one last time and make sure that we got everybody in this row of houses,' that he went in and found her and he yelled for me to help her because she was probably the most immobile of the six that we got. We lifted her up out of her bed and all three of us, my dad, Frank and I, put her in a wheel chair, wheeled her out as far we could and then the heat was so bad, so hot, that we picked her up and put her into a car," Petrini said.

The three heroes did not know that Mary Sweeney has a great deal of trouble breathing and it was not just fire that could have killed her.

"Smoke inhalation very likely could have killed my mom," Sweeney said.

Insurance investigators were at the care home Wednesday interviewing the owner Arnold De Leon. He would not say why the caregiver fled.

"Everybody is fine, so I just want to thank all the people who saved all the people in here, that's all I can say," he said.

The story of the men's heroic effort is spreading quickly. ABC7 has heard the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors is planning to honor the three men who were so instrumental in saving the women.

Resident sift through the rubble

People whose homes were destroyed in the explosion and fire got to sift through the debris Wednesday. The residents got to visit their properties in one or two small groups at a time.

Armed with rakes and sifters, Claremont Drive residents whose homes were destroyed salvaged what they could.

There was not much -- a belt, some treasures unrecognizable to anyone else.

Bob Pellegrini and his 17-year-old son Joseph filled the back of a pickup with burnt scraps collected over a two-hour visit. There was a surprise or two.

"I was surprised that my brother's CD's were intact, photos of my mom and aunt who passed away, which was nice," Pellegrini said.

Pelligrini has lived in the same house since high school and has known the firefighters who tried to save it since they were kids next door.

Residents of red-tagged homes were first allowed back in Tuesday afternoon, escorted by firefighters and police, wearing protective suits as a precaution.

Pellegrini says they just grabbed what they could Wednesday, but he will get to go back in once more before the debris is cleared away.

"This starts the healing process, seeing it now, my car is destroyed, hood melted in, wheels melted off," he said.

Governor visits fire zone

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger got his first look at the damage in San Bruno Wednesday afternoon.

He arrived directly from Asia; he had been on a trade mission since the disaster happened.

Schwarzenegger offered his prayers to those who lost so much then promised to take a hands-on role in the investigation into what went wrong and who is to blame.

"I am on that because I am a big believer in, not so much in pointing fingers, but the only way we can learn from things that have happened, from mistakes that are made, is by looking into it and acknowledging it honestly and then making the changes so it doesn't happen again," Schwarzenegger said.

The governor also said he spoke with President Obama the day after the explosion and requested a federal disaster declaration.

Health and environmental concerns

Health officials are trying to get control of the environmental hazards in the burned San Bruno neighborhood. The rubble from last week's deadly explosion, for the most part, is still untouched. Burnt cars, destroyed homes, and piles of debris line several streets.

"It is a big deal environmentally," said Dean Peterson from San Mateo County's environmental health department.

Peterson is leading the clean-up effort. It's a massive undertaking which will go in stages. Environmental crews have hauled contaminated debris out of this area only once on Sunday. They filled ten 55 gallon drums with things like leaking oil and old paint from people's garages.

They need permission to do more. So on Friday the city will ask home owners of red tagged properties if they can clear their burnt lots. Also, on Sunday air quality monitors will go up around the disaster zone, but the air isn't health officials' biggest worry.

"My main concern at this point is going to be the concentrated levels of metals and that would include lead, cadmium, aluminum, basically all the different metals you would find and asbestos to a point," said Peterson.

Metals are found in paint, batteries, and electronics. The toxins are now sitting on top of the debris. Residents have mixed reactions to the contamination.

"I'm sure they wouldn't allow us back knowing there was going to be some hazardous material around here or something," said resident Paul Uniacke.

"I'm concerned about the ramifications about our health, all of our health, and I'm right by the epicenter," said resident Denyse Barr.

"As long as there is no direct exposure, there should be no concern for health hazard based on this site," said Peterson.

Homeowners who are actually sifting through the ash have to wear safety suits and masks and they can only stay for two hours at the most.

To make sure the toxins stay put, especially through rain which is expected this weekend, storm drains will be lined with berms.

County health inspectors hope to have the clean up complete by mid-October.

Questions arise about pipeline locations

The concern and frustration is palpable. Many people feel like PG&E needs disclose where the most dangerous pipes are located, others say until pipes like the one that exploded have automatic shutoff valves installed, they will not feel safe

"I want them moved, everybody wants them moved, it's too dangerous," San Bruno resident Helga Hensen said.

For 32 years Helga and Jerry Hansen have lived near the gas transmission line that exploded last week. Like most of their neighbors they had no idea their home was on top of a ticking time bomb.

Now that they do know, they want to know more.

Many neighbors want to know exactly where the pipeline runs, why the 30-inch pipe did not have an automatic shut off valve and where exactly in the state the 100 most dangerous lines are located. It is a list that, so far, PG&E has refused to make public.

"I think they have a right to know," Assm. Jerry Hill, D-San Bruno said.

Hill is among the legislators trying to get a hold of PG&E's high risk pipe list with no success.

He is also drafting legislation that would require the utility company to install automatic shut off valves on pipes like the one that exploded last week.

It took crews nearly two hours on Thursday to shut off the gas as flames raged through the neighborhood.

"They should have and they must have a remote way to shut that off," Hill said. "If they had that, that fire would have been out sooner, which could have saved lives and more importantly it would have saved property damage."

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating why it took so long for PG&E crews to get to those valves and why the line, like many of its size, required a manual shut off.

"That's one of the issues that we'll be exploring," NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart said.

PG&E says it will not make its dangerous pipeline list public because of security concerns. What the company does want the public to know though is that its workers tried last week to save lives.

"There were a lot of things happening at 6 p.m. that night and they had to get here as quickly as they could with whatever traffic or anything else that was going on," PG&E President Chris Johns said. "We didn't have people right here, so they went to those sites as quickly as they could and turned off the valves as quickly as they could."

The NTSB is still investigating what exactly caused this explosion. The pipe itself is being shipped to Washington D.C., where it is expected to arrive Thursday for forensic testing.

The Obama administration is now asking for more oversight of the nation's pipelines and stronger penalties for violations of pipeline safety rules.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood submitted the legislation to Congress following the San Bruno blast and several other pipeline accidents.

Meanwhile, East Bay Congressman John Garamendi, D-Walnut Creek, Thursday requested Congress hold a hearing about the disaster in San Bruno.

"We need to sort out the role of the federal government in this, the relationships with the state governments and the utilities and urbanization over and around existing pipelines," Garamendi said.

City prepares for reconstruction

On Claremont Drive in San Bruno's fire zone, there are two neighborhoods, now. They consist of the homes that burned and those that survived. But, with healing and rebuilding, they will have another distinction -- the old neighborhood and the new one that rises from the ashes.

"I think they should be able to build whatever they want," resident Mike Stickel said. He lives a few doors up from the devastation. "Look at all they lost. Whatever makes this better should be alright."

The city of San Bruno has already announced that it will waive the permit fees for homeowners who rebuild and do all it can to expedite that process.

The question is what they will rebuild. Community Development Director Aaron Aknin says the city already had a plan in place that will protect the neighborhood's original design and integrity. In short, no super-homes or mansions, like those that appeared in the Oakland Hills following that massive blaze in 1992.

Realistically, however, he said it remains early to make such decisions. Residents are still sifting through debris. No one has filed permit requests with the Building Department, nor does the city expect any in the immediate future.

Victims remain hospitalized

As of Wednesday, eight people are still in two Bay Area hospitals being treated for burns.

Four of the patients are listed as critical -- three are serious and one is in fair condition.

Hospital officials say they are at least all stable and are showing signs of recovering.

CPUC sets up number to reported gas smell

The California Public Utilities Commission has established a toll-free number and e-mail address for anyone who noticed the smell. People can call (800) 789-0550 or send an e-mail SBFire@cpuc.ca.gov if they smelled the gas.

The NTSB has also set up a tip line for their investigation. They are interested in reports of a natural gas order or any plants dying. You can e-mail information or amature video related to this case to: sanbruno@ntsb.gov

ABC7 Continuing Coverage:
AUDIO: Fire dispatch recordings of San Bruno explosion
RAW VIDEO: Explosion captured on gas station video
RAW VIDEO: Reactions to explosion captured on video
RAW VIDEO: NTSB Monday afternoon update
Some San Bruno residents allowed to return
RAW VIDEO: NTSB Sunday afternoon update
RAW SKY7 VIDEO: Friday morning over San Bruno
VIDEO: Photographer's first-hand account of devastation
VIDEO: Eyewitness account
PHOTOS: San Bruno explosion
VIDEO: "I thought - this is judgment day"
VIDEO: Fire consumes neighborhood
VIDEO: Photographer captures images moments after blast

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