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Mills student eye-witness account of San Bruno gas explosion

The gas explosion in San Bruno as seen from student Hilda Ramos's home (Hilda Ramos).

On Thursday afternoon, I was lying in my room listening to music on full volume. I usually shake my leg when I’m bored, but around 6:10 p.m. my bed really shook. At first, I said comically to myself, “Why Hilda, you don’t know the strength you have!”

My mom woke up from a nap and thought it was an earthquake. We didn’t pay much attention to it, thinking maybe it was someone lighting fireworks since that’s legal in San Bruno, or an airplane passing by since we are five miles away from the airport.

My mom left for work and I was alone with my sister. I immediately turned on the news and saw the reports. The reports themselves weren’t clear. First it was a gas station that exploded, then it was an airplane crash, and then it was gas pipe explosion.

Everyone was saying they saw an airplane, or a gas tank, or the pipe. I didn’t know what was going on. It was then that helicopters started going around the neighborhood. I live about six blocks from where the fire began. Fire trucks and police sirens were going off in all directions. Neighbors were going outside and were in awe at the sight.

The news was talking about immediate evacuations for those affected when all of a sudden everything went black. My TV, computer and telephone  turned off. They had shut down the electricity.

I scrambled for a battery-powered phone because cell phone calls weren’t going through either. I was in such a state of panic. My mom wasn’t home and my five-year-old sister kept asking me what
was wrong.

The fire could actually be heard through my windows. It was a huge roaring, frightening sound. The smell was of burnt plastic and wood. It was nauseating. I tried calling my family, but to no avail. We didn’t have any details of
the disaster.

A few minutes later the water and gas were cut off, too. That’s when I really started panicking. I was scared to go outside, to see the damage, to see the people leaving. I peeked outside my window and saw several of my neighbors packing boxes into their cars and
taking off.

A string of evacuees leave the neighbor hood as the encroching fire is seen in the sky (Hilda Ramos).

After that, around 8 p.m., a police officer knocked on my door and asked how many occupants of the house there were and who they were. He then said that he was advising an early evacuation and that there would be an immediate evacuation later on if need be. He told me that if that happened we wouldn’t have time to grab our things. He showed us the path we needed to follow to leave our neighborhood, since they had blocked many streets. I knew we had to leave, but just then we had nowhere to go. I ran to my sister and told her to pack underwear, pajamas, socks, jackets and a few toys. I ran to my room and grabbed a jacket and a few socks. I ran to my mom’s room and placed important documents in my bag. I tried calling family members again, but there was still no answer. Just as I hung up the phone a cop car announced there was to be an evacuation of my street.

My sister and I ran to my car with our dog and just drove. I was shaking so badly and I wanted to cry. My sister kept saying she didn’t want her house to burn. She could see the huge fire now that it was catching onto some of
the trees.

The traffic was jammed. There were so many cars.

Getting farther away from the scene, I was angry and surprised to see so many people purposely driving towards the fire, stopping their cars and taking pictures! I wanted to get away and these people were blocking paths, taking out their cameras and just taking pictures. I am still angry that they would do such a thing. Sure, it’s no big deal for them to drive up and take pictures because they didn’t own property near the fire, but those who were forced to evacuate their homes whether they wanted to or not had to watch these people take photographs. It was
just maddening.

We were told that if we had no place to go to drive to a shopping center a mile away. There they would reveal information about the fire and make a list of people who were there. I cannot convey the sadness I saw in the victims when I arrived at the shopping center. I really felt like I would break down. It suddenly became too much. People badly burned, helicopters flying around, airplanes splashing water, fire truck after fire truck driving past and news caster asking questions when we didn’t even know the answers.

At that moment my cell phone finally had a little bit of signal and I saw my aunt had called. My sister and I went to her house, which was about 10 miles from the fire in the neighboring city of South San Francisco. I saw the news and finally saw that it was a gas pipe explosion. I saw the pictures of the houses burning. I saw the videos of the unrestrained fire. I started crying in front of the TV. It wasn’t even pretty crying, it was horrible, sobbing crying. I saw my mom’s friend’s house burn on TV. I have known them since I was 7 and have always played at their house.

The news actually did something right and displayed a number to call if we were among the displaced. The lines were so busy it took me an hour to reach them. I asked if I could go home, seeing on the news that they had reduced the flame to small separated fires. They told me my streets were still blocked and I needed to stay somewhere else.

My mother came home that night to my aunt’s house, where we spent the night holding each other. The next morning we were up early to watch the news. They showed the damage and it made us cry.

We were relieved to know that our house wasn’t touched, but it still wasn’t happy news to know how many others had lost
their homes.

There was no school for San Bruno elementary students that day, so my sister stayed home. I went for a drive with my cousin so it could clear my head, but what I saw was so strange. I was grief-ridden and scared and super jumpy, but the people on the street looked so normal. They laughed, they talked and smiled, but I could imagine my neighbor’s faces, which wouldn’t be anything
like that.

Friday and Saturday were mostly filled with watching the news and calling to find out when we could return. They announced that Sunday we would be escorted back to our neighborhood.

My family was among the first to go back to our street and it was a happy moment for us. We ran to our rooms but when I got there I could see where the smoke and fire had been and it made
things depressing.

It’s annoying now how helicopters are always zooming above us. It’s annoying having to show identification to enter our street. It’s very annoying to know that cops are stationed on every street to avoid looters. I know they’re trying their best for our necessity, but it feels like they are rubbing salt in our wounds.

At night I now have to sleep with my sister and mother. There is a constant fear that I won’t see them again so I have to be with them. I’m scared that I might open my eyes and boom, they won’t be there. My mom and I are careful when turning on the stove, hesitating every so often. We slowly turn on the water hoping it won’t make anything explode. It’s just fear. When I leave for school, or my mom goes to work, we hold on just a little bit longer.