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San Bruno fire: Forever changed
July 23, 2012, 05:00 AM By Heather Murtagh Daily Journal Staff

Bill Silverfarb/Daily Journal file photo The fatal explosion and fire forever changed not only the San Bruno neighborhood in the hills but has also been cited in national conversations about infrastructure.

Most communities feel a sense of safety, like nothing bad can happen in their town.

That changed in San Bruno Sept. 9, 2010 when a large boom rocked the city that evening. Early reports were that a plane crashed. Those in the Glenview/Crestmoor neighborhood quickly saw flames shooting in the air, engulfing the homes of neighbors and spreading fast. Even after the source of the fire — a ruptured natural gas line — was known, there was more than an hour during which time first responders could do little but prevent the flames from spreading and help others get to safety.

The fatal explosion and fire forever changed not only the San Bruno neighborhood in the hills but has also been cited in national conversations about infrastructure. Starting that conversation began with a moment when everything went wrong. It’s that story of how one town reacted to that horrible situation which is explored in a 30-minute documentary by director Jon Rubin that will be shown at the San Mateo County History Museum days before the second anniversary of the fire and explosion. The film features footage of the fire in progress and also interviews with many involved including firefighters, residents from the area, Mayor Jim Ruane and City Manager Connie Jackson. Both Ruane and Jackson will be on hand during the showing to field questions after the film.

In the last two years, the city of San Bruno has worked diligently to move forward and rebuild the area while advocating for safety improvements in hopes of making the experience an isolated one. But the movie brings one back to that evening when so little was known, fire was spreading quickly, strangers were helping one another and many remained glued to their television set late into the night watching live coverage from a helicopter as fire continued to consume the area.

It was the national television coverage that first alerted Mitch Postel, president of the San Mateo County Historical Association, of the impact this event would have. Postel lives only a quarter of a mile from the spot where the pipe ruptured. A call from his son alerted him of a possible problem but a quick glance out of his back window showed nothing to be alarmed about. Postel’s son called back, asking his father to peer out the front window. There was a different situation — lots of fire.

The National Transportation and Safety Board attributed a spike in pressure coupled with a faulty weld in the 30-inch pipeline as the trigger for the fatal explosion that killed eight, destroyed 38 homes and damaged over 70 homes. It took 95 minutes to turn off the gas fueling the fire. Water mains were broken during the explosion creating an additional challenge to those trying to limit the damage of the flames.

Expressing the emotions of those who were there — confusion, frustration, hope — wasn’t difficult, Rubin said. Once people began to talk, "it really felt like these people had been through a war,” he said.

Rubin’s hope was to create a film that is respectful of the views of those who were affected by the incident. In addition, he hoped the film could act as a cautionary tale to others.

The documentary will be shown 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 6 at the San Mateo County History Museum, 2200 Broadway, Redwood City. The evening is free with the cost of admission, $5 for adults and $3 for students and seniors. For more information, call 299-0104 or visit

Heather Murtagh can be reached by email: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.

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