By Garance Burke
The young man staggered into his neighbor’s driveway, his body still smoking from the explosion that mangled his torso and sparked a gas-fueled fireball rising fast above San Bruno.
His girlfriend had been at his side but was nowhere to be seen as he collapsed into his neighbor’s car.
Somehow they kept him lucid in the back seat, even as Joseph Ruigomez shut his eyes against the pain and the flames tearing through their street.
“I kept telling Joe, ‘Don’t close your eyes,’” said Tammy Zapata, who lives only a block from the site where a massive gas transmission line ruptured the evening of Sept. 9, 2010. “We kept praying for him the whole way to the emergency room.”
One year after the explosion in San Bruno, Zapata, Ruigomez and hundreds of other survivors are still struggling to rebuild their lives.
Eight people were killed, dozens were injured and 38 homes overlooking Bay were torched to the ground. The nation’s deadliest gas explosion in a decade sparked a blaze that spread across 15 acres and left a 26-foot wide crater that still gapes at the bottom of the street where the pipeline ran.
Like many victims, Zapata keeps reliving the panic of that night in her mind.
“I just keep thinking about what Joe looked like when he came up the street. His face was all ash,” said Zapata, 49, a real estate agent. “It looked like he was wearing a shredded T-shirt, but I looked closer and it was all his skin melting off. I knew we had to get him out of there or he was going to leave us.”
Ruigomez’s girlfriend, 20-year-old Jessica Morales, was visiting his house to watch the first game of the NFL season when the initial explosion ripped through the neighborhood. Side-by-side they tried to flee the house, but a second blast engulfed them. The next thing Ruigomez knew, he was staggering in the street. Her body was found in a neighbor’s shed.
It was the last time Ruigomez saw Morales, according to his attorneys, who said he was still too traumatized to speak about it publicly.
“Me and jess were super close and each other’s first true love so it (definitely is) hard,” Ruigomez said in a Facebook tribute to Morales, who had hoped to be a fashion designer.
Ruigomez was covered in third-degree burns and has a long road ahead. Skin grafts cover his face. After five months in the hospital, he still has multiple medical appointments each week, said his attorney, Tom Girardi.
Ruigomez’s father said his son is making progress in regaining movement and relearning everyday skills through physical and occupational therapy.
“He’s at home getting stronger every day,” said James Ruigomez. “He’s been trying to keep a positive attitude. He’s been trying to cope with the loss of his first love, Jessica, mourning her, and trying to stay as positive as he can through this tragic, tragic event.”
James Ruigomez said he feels grateful that his son survived the blast.
“What a miracle it is that he was able to escape that horrific event,” he said. “We’re willing to do whatever we can to make sure this doesn’t happen to anybody else in the entire world.”
Morales’ mother, Rene Morales, said her family has not been the same since her oldest daughter was killed. Jessica Morales’ two brothers, sister, father and relatives miss her tremendously, she said. Her older brother and cousins got tattoos with her name.
“There’s not one day that goes by that we don’t think about her and miss her,” Rene Morales said. “When she was here, our house was alive. Since she’s gone, it’s definitely not the same.”
Around the subdivision where the pipeline exploded, there are signs of progress.
Construction signs have gone up on dozens of charred lots.
Federal and state regulators have promised major safety upgrades in the wake of the San Bruno accident and several other high-profile pipeline ruptures.
And in the face of widespread criticism, utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has overhauled its leadership and vowed to set a new industry standard for safety.
Still, as the blast’s one-year anniversary approaches this Friday, many residents question why the company has not been fined for poor record-keeping leading up to the blast. They hope a report by federal investigators placing blame on those responsible will speed their path to justice.
The National Transportation Safety Board last week said PG&E’s “litany of failures” led to the explosion. The board found that substandard welds and other problems dating to the 1956 installation of the pipeline were the direct cause of the accident. The company’s inadequate inspection program for pipelines, which allowed the bad welds and other weaknesses to go undetected, also contributed, the board said.
PG&E President Chris Johns said in a statement to the Associated Press that the company remains deeply sorry and is working hard to improve the safety, quality and performance of its gas system.
“After the San Bruno tragedy, PG&E will never be the same company,” Johns said. “We are committed for the long term to helping the community rebuild, to learning from this experience and to making the necessary changes in our culture and operating practices to operate our pipeline system as safely as possible.”
Gilda Tarzia, who was close to retirement before the fire consumed everything she had, said she is still too traumatized to consider rebuilding in San Bruno.
Since the fire, she has been renting an apartment in nearby Redwood City but is nearly out of money since PG&E has yet to reimburse her for the hundreds of thousands of dollars she believes she is owed for her destroyed home.
“It wasn’t just a house. It was a home, it was a nest and a place of refuge for me and my children,” said Tarzia, 69. “For PG&E to think that they have the power and the audacity to treat us like we don’t exist when they caused this catastrophe, it just angers me every time I think about it.”
None of the 38 homes ravaged in the blast have been rebuilt, though construction has begun on seven replacements. Four severely damaged structures have been entirely repaired, 10 more have permits to start restoration work and dozens more have gotten new roofs and landscaping thanks to funds paid out by the utility.
Hundreds of residents are expected to gather for a remembrance ceremony to mark the explosion’s one-year anniversary at a local college a few minutes before the milestone passes, and will come together again two days later for a reunion in a local park.
“Before this, residents and organizations like mine generally believed that our communities were reasonably safe,” said San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson. “I think there’s a long ways to go in terms of what needs to be done to assure that this community and others are as safe as they once believed they were.”
The California Public Utilities Commission, which also has been admonished by federal investigators probing the blast, said it plans to reform the state’s pipeline oversight system to make it the nation’s strongest.
One commissioner said PG&E could be penalized for record-keeping problems extending beyond Sept. 9.
“This is going to be an ongoing process to get PG&E back on track,” said Mike Florio, a CPUC commissioner appointed since the accident. “As far as we know, they’re not done yet with putting back together their system.”
The commission, too, will hold its own private memorial in the agency’s downtown San Francisco headquarters.
On Sept. 9, staff will gather to dedicate a tree in honor of its longtime analyst, Jacqueline Greig, and her 13-year-old daughter, Janessa, who were killed when their home was consumed in the blast.
Congress is preparing to debate several national pipeline safety bills this fall, and the U.S. Department of Transportation is considering broad new restrictions on natural gas transmission lines after last year’s string of fatal accidents revealed the government’s lax oversight of the industry. Federal prosecutors also are probing the blast, and the company has warned its investors that the utility could be affected if criminal fines or penalties are imposed.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat whose district includes San Bruno, said several bills would result in important safety reforms, but progress has been too slow in coming.
“Up until now, the utilities and the oil companies have been far too able to sway the process of determining what is appropriate for safety,” Speier said. “I think the community has shown incredible resilience and incredible restraint in dealing with this tragedy, and we all need to push this forward.”
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Scars remain for San Bruno survivors