Crawled up in a ball and trapped in a thicket of bushes in her neighbors’ yard, Maria Barr thought her life was over.
With burning embers and other objects flying through the air, and with the intense smoke from the fire caused by the Sept. 9 pipeline explosion filling her lungs, she had accepted her fate—not wanting to die that way but knowing that she had done all she could to escape.
Then, in a surreal moment, she heard a still, small voice that sounded like her only daughter. “Mom,” she heard.
Although she was scared for her life, at that moment she held out a glimmer of hope, gaining new courage from the thought that she might live and spare her family pain and suffering.
“Lord, don’t let me die,” she called out. “I don’t want to die. Not right now.”
In a miraculous moment, she looked up and someone came to her rescue and helped whisk her to safety. She had survived.
Barr, 70, who has lived alone on Concord Way since her husband died a few years ago, is now one of the many residents of the Crestmoor neighborhood who, a year after the fire, is still rebuilding her home and steadily rebuilding her life. In large part due to her age, she’s taking a long time to recover. Yet she is hopeful, just as she was on the night of the explosion.
Long road back
After the fire was extinguished and residents gradually were allowed to re-enter the neighborhood, officials told Barr that her home had been yellow-tagged. It was a label given to about a dozen homes because they weren’t completely destroyed, but were damaged badly enough that they were deemed uninhabitable.
She spent months staying in her daughter’s condominium, dealing with bouts of depression because she had lost so much up to that point. Her husband died in 2006 from complications related to carotid arteries. Just a few months before the explosion, a neighbor—who had also lost a spouse and whom she had befriended—died. Her daughter, Desiree, was to be married, but the wedding was postponed after the fire.
It took time for her to summon the strength to cope with everything. Eventually, she mustered up the energy to start repairing her home, working with contractors to replace her kitchen, walls, paint, carpet—basically the majority of the house. Then, as she would start moving things back in, the depression would kick back in because, to her, her home had been her castle. Now it just was not the same.
“Every day, I think I was getting better,” she said. “But the fact that I hadn’t accomplished much—I don’t know, it was like a sadness that would come back.”
Even today, boxes fill just about every room of her house—some stacked up taller than her petite frame—because just when she is ready to start unpacking, she gets emotional thinking about all the memories and she has to leave.
Recovering with words
Her breakthrough came a few months ago when, to get over the shock of rebuilding after a disaster, she remembered how much she enjoyed writing.
Passing the time away, she would recall how remarkable it was that she escaped death, and her thoughts would flow into words on paper.
She remembered how on the morning of the explosion, she visited her next-door neighbor, a paraplegic whose wife has been in a nursing home, as she did just about every morning. She would bring pastries while he would yell outside the window, “Coffee’s ready!”
When Barr first ran out of the house to escape the fire, her first thought was to save her neighbor. She yelled to him over their shared fence, but he didn’t answer. So she thought he was dead. It turns out, however, that paramedics were able to take him to safety. Barr said she now has to chuckle, knowing that she almost risked her life trying to save someone else when she was the one who would end up needing to be rescued.
While she waited to be rescued, Barr remembered many things, from getting off the phone with her sister just before the explosion to happy times with her late husband. Like a phoenix rising up from the ashes, Barr felt she should pen a short book chronicling her experience, with the help of her creative writing group.
What makes her thankful, she said, is knowing that God saved her life on that chaotic day so that she could tell her story now.
Rescued by sheer chance
When Barr was trapped in her neighbors’ bushes during the fire, she didn’t think anyone would really hear her cry for help, she said.
But then a young man emerged from her rear neighbor’s house—initially looking for his girlfriend’s pets—and spotted her.
That young man was Sean Applegate, who stopped by his girlfriend Katie Ocampo’s house on Claremont Drive minutes before. Applegate, Ocampo and her family had rushed to the top of Claremont after the pipeline ruptured, but Applegate and Ocampo decided to run back to the house to get her pets.
Applegate, 32, was able to grab the dogs while Ocampo, 28, looked for her cat and boa constrictor. When Applegate ran into the backyard, he saw Barr.
“That was probably the weirdest thing to me, because she looked like she was just hanging out,” he said. “It took me a second to realize it was a real person.”
They had a car waiting in front of the house, so Applegate snatched up Barr, and they eventually ended up near Sneath Lane. Another family then picked up Barr and took her to a house in San Bruno where a good Samaritan took in families for the night.
Barr was reunited with her daughter Desiree, who had been looking for her, the next day.
Joy replacing despair
Today, Barr still has trouble dealing with frequent flashbacks to the fire and the burdensome aftermath. But she has a reason to smile.
Her daughter, Desiree, finally had her wedding in Santa Cruz in July, where Barr was able to walk her down the aisle.
Barr is now thinking about going back to school to get her degree, which she was never able to do because, being the oldest child in a poor family of migrant workers in Texas, she had to put some of her earlier dreams on hold.
Best of all, Barr has her castle back.
“I’m still trying to cope,” she said. “People are saying this area is blighted and that property values will go down because of the explosion. But I believe in God. And I figure I’m old, I don’t have much longer to live, and I want (my life) to be happy.”
All this week, San Bruno Patch looks back at Sept. 9, 2010, and talks with people affected about their lives in the past year.
View the San Bruno Patch Facebook page for all stories on the fire from the past year, a link to videos and photos from Patch and our readers.