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San Bruno Stories: “She’s screaming into her cell phone, and all I heard was screaming”

| September 9, 2011
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September 9 marks 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, KQED has been interviewing survivors of the disaster. This is Part 5. Click here for Parts 1-4.

The Magoolaghan family

Bill Magoolaghan’s wife, Betty, was eight months pregnant with their fourth child when the explosion rocked their home on Claremont Avenue. With the help of a neighbor, she grabbed the children and ran barefoot from the fireball. The family survived, but their house was irreparably damaged by the blaze and by water from the firefighters.

Bill had to pressure his insurance company to help find his family an acceptable place to move into. They ended up in Belmont, but they hope to move back to San Bruno by Christmas, into an upgraded and expanded home built on the site of the old house.

Bill was at his office in San Francisco when Betty first called to tell him what had happened.

An edited transcript follows the audio.

Audio: Bill Magolaghan on what happened the day of the fire

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Betty called me at work and I couldn’t understand what she was saying. She’s screaming into her cell phone and all I heard was screaming. And then the cell phone hung up. It happened four times. I had 911 on the other phone, saying “I don’t know what’s going on, but my wife is screaming.” Finally, she called and said, “there’s an airplane that crashed in our backyard. I said “what are you doing?” and she said “running.” I said “keep running!”

It was six o’clock so it was high traffic, and I figured I wouldn’t take 280. And when I got here, I was like “can I go through? Because my wife and kids are on the other side.” He said “it’s a very unstable situation. We have no idea what’s going to happen. The whole thing might blow up.” So it was really frustrating, because I couldn’t get to them. We had some friends pick them up on the other side, take them to their house where we met. We watched the whole thing on TV that night.

I got a hold of someone who is responsible for gathering up the pets. She said ‘what’s your house number?’ I said ’1611 Claremont.’ She said “those blocks are all gone.”

My five year old at the time, she said “daddy, where’s our luggage?” I said, “honey, you’re wearing it.” We were convinced everything we had was just gone. And our dog was left in the house too, so we thought the dog was gone. Finally in the morning, I got a hold of someone who is responsible for gathering up the pets. She said “what’s your house number?” I said “1611 Claremont.” She said “those blocks are all gone.” But it was amazing. She went over to the house. She said “it’s still here.” She went in and she said “I found your dog.” I said “alive??” she said, “he’s fine.” We were like, “thank god.”

We didn’t bring the kids back in after that. They were pretty petrified. The girls have been in therapy pretty much ever since. My six year-old is doing better. I was talking to her the other day. She said “daddy, I still have nightmares, but they don’t wake me up.” Which is a good sign. And I ask about her counselor, Miss Elisa, and she says she really likes talking to her about things, and it makes her feel better. Which is a really good because the girls both had nightmares, terrifying nightmares, in the beginning. There’s nothing worse than having your kid screaming “help me, help me!” in the middle of the night, because they’re having a nightmare. So they’ve made a lot of progress.

It’s still a very emotional thing for us. And I think with the anniversary coming up, it’s going to be a very emotional event. It’s great to see everybody, but it’s like reliving what happened. And that’s tough.

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About the Author ()

As a radio reporter for KQED Science, Amy's grappled with archaic maps, brain fitness exercises, albino redwood trees, and jet-lagged lab rats, as well as modeled a wide variety of hard hats and construction vests. Long before all that, she learned to cut actual tape interning for a Latin American news show at WBAI in New York, then took her first radio job as a producer for Pulse of the Planet. Since then, Amy has been an editor at Salon.com, the editor of Terrain Magazine, and has produced stories for NPR, Living on Earth, Philosophy Talk, and Pop Up Magazine. She's also a founding editor of Meatpaper Magazine. Reach Amy Standen at astanden@kqed.org.

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