SAN BRUNO — They lived on narrow, interwoven streets with names that smacked of sturdy suburbia — Concord Way, Glenview Drive.
There had been some change in recent years — new faces, new money as young professionals discovered that it was a workable commute from San Bruno to San Francisco, 12 miles to the north. But more than anything, the subdivision nestled against the slopes of Crestmoor Canyon was a place distinguished by conventional, middle-class stability.
They lived in modest, ranch-style houses, most built during a housing boom that followed World War II. They were retired cops, preschool teachers, jet maintenance workers. They ran into each other at church and down at the park.
They knew each other, and not just by waving on the way to work in the morning. Neighborhood fixtures were the rule; many had lived here for 30, 40 years, some in the same house where they grew up.
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One resident was there to watch workers dig trenches and install gas lines in 1957.
Now there is a 30-foot-wide crater in the middle of the neighborhood, where a 30-inch gas line ruptured and erupted Thursday in a massive plume of fire. The scope of the disaster is becoming clearer: four confirmed deaths, including a 44-year-old woman and her young daughter. At least 37 homes were destroyed. At least 50 burn victims were treated at hospitals.
It's hard to remember that it was just another evening — a Thursday, a little after 6. The kids were doing their homework. Several residents were watching the first half of the Saints-Vikings game.
They'd smelled it first, some of them — the smell of gas, for a week, maybe more.
They felt it next — low and steady, as if the earth was growling, then with a sudden urgency that shook the foundations of their houses. They all assumed it was one of two things — an earthquake, or the crash-landing of a jumbo jet.
Kaila Uniacke, 17, was in the earthquake camp. She raced into her brother Kevin's bedroom, and they huddled under a desk.
But after a while, she realized that it didn't feel like an earthquake. Curious, she had a look outside.
"The wind," she said, "was red."
Bob Hensel, 71, a retired firefighter for the city of San Bruno, was in the den watching TV.
"It sounded like I was standing at the wrong side of a jet engine," he said. "Stuff started hitting the house. It got warm and very orange and bright out. I ... realized I had to get the heck out."
Hensel threw on a pair of black lace-up shoes and ran to the garage, no time to grab his wallet, hearing aid, pills. Everything saved was attached to his body — the eyeglasses hanging from his shirt collar, the cell phone attached to his belt.
Hensel's home was the last one leveled in the blaze, the house to the south of him gone, too, the house to the north of him untouched.
He fled, barreling down the street on the edge of a fire that authorities say may have reached 1,200 degrees. On Friday, outside an evacuation center set up in San Bruno's Veterans Memorial Recreation Center, he realized that the taillight lenses on his car were distorted by the heat, the paint on the bumper peeled and blistered.
Hensel's son, Rob, works for the city and was able to sneak back into the neighborhood to get a look at the house.
"Desolation," Rob said. "Surreal. A Hollywood set." There was a filing cabinet that didn't burn. A toolbox. Part of the chimney.
"Other than that, all ashes," Hensel said. "I lost my home. I lost my identity."
Residents' attachment to their neighborhood was not lost on the men who worked at the local firehouse, just down the hill from the blast.
"It shook our station right to its foundation," said Fire Capt. Charlie Barringer.
Barringer sounded a four-alarm fire and headed out on Engine 52, the first truck to respond.
The explosion had not only destroyed homes but also the grid of water mains that fed the local hydrants. Crews had to string together hoses from hydrants that were two miles away.
"We were overwhelmed," said Barringer, who'd been based nearby for three years.
The air was thick and acrid. Tires on cars that had been parked on the street had melted, trees were charred and a dark, tarlike residue coated light poles.
"It is devastating," said local historian Darold Fredricks, 77, who lives on a ridge overlooking the area destroyed. The victims, he said, "are starting to realize, hell, all of our history, our photographs, everything we've accumulated and saved, it's just absolutely gone."