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San Bruno Stories: “The kids ask, ‘why was the fire on our house?’”

| September 6, 2011
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Phil Persechio and kids

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, Amy Standen of KQED QUEST is interviewing survivors of the disaster. This is Part 3; click here for Parts 1 and 2.

Phil Perserchio lives on Claremont Drive, about a block up the hill from where the explosion occurred. His house was damaged, but not destroyed.

Here is an edited transcript of his conversation with Amy Standen:

We were home the day it happened, myself, my wife and our two kids. I had just brought my kids home from a gym class, so I had just driven them home down that street, probably ten minutes before.

Like most people, we thought it was an earthquake, just a really big quake. We were in a state of panic. We all sort of gathered together into a ball, like as a family, and started trying to move toward the garage. I remember saying “It’s ok, it’s ok.” I wanted to usher everyone to a place that was safe, but I was also trying not to freak out too much, because your kids are going to freak out as much as you do.

As soon as we opened the garage door, we saw a huge fireball. I saw people running down the street. I had just had hip surgery a couple of months earlier, and I knew I couldn’t run with the kids. So I just yelled “Get in the car!” My wife said “I don’t have the keys!” So I had to go run in and get them. Just as we were driving away, I hit the garage door opener, just out of habit.

I’m not exaggerating: It looked like a scene from that movie War of the Worlds. People were getting out of their cars in the middle of the street to just look. From every direction, it was Spielberg-like. At that point people were saying it was an airplane crash and I was like, “sure, of course.” We didn’t doubt it.

We said goodbye to the house. We just assumed our house was gone. The kids were crying. I never thought about a single thing we had left behind, wallet, computers. But the mistake we made was leaving my daughter’s blanket, her blankie. She was three. She still remembers that. The next day we bought her a new one that looked like it, but she rejected it. She said, “that’s not ba ba!”

I don’t know if it was the shock, but it just didn’t bother me hugely to think that I lost everything, I thought, well, we’re going to have a fresh start. And we’re never going to have to worry about needing to show old tax returns to the IRS.

I couldn’t sleep at all that night – we were staying at my parents’ house – and the next morning at 5 AM, I went back, to see if our house was still there. They wouldn’t let me get near it, but a neighbor let me go into his backyard. And from there I could see our house. It was still there.

My kids are in counseling now, just to make sure they’re okay. For a while, when we’d see a sunset, they’d ask, “Is that the fire?” When we were driving around, they’d ask “Are we in San Bruno now?” I’ll say, “No we’re in Millbrae,” or whatever. They’ll say “Good, because the fire is in San Bruno.”

It crystallizes everything in your life and makes you realize how you want to live, and how you don’t want to live, I guess. Seven days after the fire, my wife filed for separation from me. It’s been a nightmare year. I wonder whether other relationships have gone through the same thing. From the kids’ perspective, they might always associate this fire with the breakup of their family. I don’t know how to explain it to them.

They ask, “Why was the fire on our house? Why did it come?” And I have to say, “You know what? It was an accident. Accidents happen.” But I tell them, “I don’t think it’s going to happen again. And if it does, we’re going to do the same thing. We’re going to jump in the car and run away.”

All of our San Bruno Stories:

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