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OP-ED: Two years later: The San Bruno pipeline explosion
August 13, 2012, 05:00 AM By Debra Marks, Ph.D.
When you are surrounded by fragility, you do not charge in. You step cautiously, move slowly, tread gently, so as not to further wound or crack or break that which is already compromised.

Sept. 9 will mark the two-year anniversary of the Pacific Gas and Electric pipeline explosion in San Bruno, a moment in time when the landscape of our neighborhood and the inner lives of our neighbors were forever changed. Recently, this same neighborhood was impacted once again, this time when a pipe, located in the exact same location as the 2010 tragedy, was ruptured by a contractor’s backhoe. The contractor was hired by the city of San Bruno to repair the infrastructure damaged in the blast two years ago. The contractor made a mistake.

As a result of this mistake, gas spewed into our neighborhood once again. An evacuation and a shelter-in-place were announced. Sirens echoed once again. Fire trucks rushed to the scene. Helicopters circled above. Reporters and cameramen invaded our streets and rang our doorbells. And once again, our hearts stopped and panic set in, as the terror we felt two years ago pushed its way back through the gates of any progress we had made. For many, this "mistake” opened wounds that had barely begun to heal and, in a split second, we returned to Sept. 9, 2010 and stared into the eyes of our terrified, shaken and wounded selves.

When you are surrounded by fragility, you do not charge in. You stand patiently, work quietly, watch knowingly, so as not to further strip or bleed or crush that which is already ravaged.

The contractor promptly issued a formal apology, and it was most likely a sincere one. For us, however, apologies have ceased to mean much. We have heard too many apologies from too many people, especially from those who are responsible for causing the devastation two years ago. We see their apology on television now, veiled in a $10 million ad campaign designed to make us feel better about what they are doing to change the way they have failed us.

Apologies don’t mean much to this community anymore.

I was home at the time of this latest rupture, just as I had been two years ago, and in an instant, I felt its impact. The first thought I had was, "It’s happening again.” The second thought I had was, "Do they use a backhoe in cemeteries?” Perhaps that seems morbid, but that is the way I feel about these streets. They are parcels of land where lives were lost, and while some might see a dirty, torn-up neighborhood under construction, with beautiful new homes rising inside chain-link fences, I see a graveyard for my neighbors who are now deceased. I see heavy machinery digging and trenching on sacred ground.

I see it and so do many of my neighbors.

Others do not.

Maybe that is what happens with any tragedy. In the beginning, the eyes of strangers surround you. They see everything. They watch from behind their one-way mirrors, hover with cameras and microphones, linger and observe your excruciating vulnerability. Then the rush of attention gradually shifts and the once attentive, somewhat voyeuristic eyes begin to exit, moving along to the next compelling human story.

A strange feeling emerges for those of us left behind. Perhaps it emerges for all who have experienced a trauma. It is a confusing mixture, a mixture of wanting others to see that you are still in pain and resenting them for looking.

I have lived in San Bruno for just over two years now, and I can see that this is a resilient and unsinkable community. We are building. We are moving through and moving on as best we can, but it takes nothing to bring us back to that early evening on Sept. 9, 2010. It takes nothing to cause us to struggle for air. It takes nothing to cause our minds to go blank. It takes nothing to feel our bodies go numb. It takes nothing to open our wounds.

So to our neighboring communities, to our contractors and to those of you reading this now, please do not forget.

You are surrounded by fragility.

Please do not charge in.

Dr. Debra Marks is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in San Francisco. She works regularly with individuals and couples dealing with trauma. She lives with her partner and their two cats less than 700 feet from the pipeline explosion.

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