Nearly a year after tragedy struck their modest neighborhood, Diane Gretter is finally able to sit back, cross her legs and reminisce about the decisions she made on a chaotic September night last year.
“I always thought I’d be the level-headed one in a time of necessity and grab really important things,” said Diane, 50, chuckling at herself. “I didn’t grab anything I should have grabbed.”
On Sept. 9, 2010, a PG&E natural gas transmission pipeline exploded near Glenview Drive and Earl Avenue in the Crestmoor neighborhood, leaving eight people dead and 38 homes burned to the ground. Diane and Gary Gretter, along with their two sons, Matt, 18, and Tim, 17, are longtime residents of the neighborhood whose home on Claremont Drive was damaged—but not destroyed—in the fire. The place they have called home since 1990 had only minor damage.
As the Gretters reflect on the year that has passed since the pipeline explosion, they aren't focused on regrets. Instead they are all about looking forward and celebrating what they now recognize as their most important asset: family.
Diane said she wouldn't have been able to cope as easily now if the flames would have consumed their family photos.
“I took the graduation picture of (Matt) from high school, (Tim’s) junior picture, our wedding picture, threw them in the car, and ran out,” Diane said, reflecting on the night they evacuated the neighborhood and fled from the fire. “That was all I had.”
The fact that Gary, Diane, Matt and Tim emerged unscathed from the disaster has motivated the family to embrace the future with a newfound appreciation for life and take pride in their personal resiliency and their community's spirit and spunk.
Memories still vivid
But like many other residents who decided to stay in the neighborhood and move on with their lives, it does not mean that September night is forgotten.
Tim, a senior and two-sport standout athlete at Capuchino, was at the high school during the explosion, but Diane, Gary and Matt were at home. Looking back, Gary said he thought the boom he heard was nothing more than special sound effects employed by the Thursday night NFL football broadcast.
“It was the first Thursday night football game of the year and the Vikings were playing,” said Gary, 51. “So we’re watching TV, and I thought it was a sound effect coming out of the speakers because it didn’t just boom. You heard this rush, this whooshing sound. I go, ‘That’s a weird sound effect.’”
“Five seconds later, the whole house just picked up and dropped,” he continued. “I looked outside and everything was just glowing orange.”
From that point forward, the Gretter family was in motion, and Gary compared the spike in temperature to that of Sin City.
“As soon as I stepped from the garage into the driveway, the heat was like being in Vegas,” Gary said. “You’re in a 70-degree casino and you step out and it’s like 120 degrees. There was an immediate difference in temperature.”
Rush to survive
Diane’s first move, after securing three family photos, was to go to Capuchino and find Tim. But she left her cell phone behind in the process and had no way of reaching her youngest son.
Complicating that goal was what she encountered outside their home, frightened neighbors trying to flee the flames.
“I went to the school to try to get him,” said Diane, gesturing toward Tim. “As I’m driving up the street, people are hopping in my car, saying, ‘Take me away.’”
Gary tried to retrieve his wife’s cat from under the bed, but was unsuccessful, then ran out of the house, and rounded up as many frantic neighbors as he could carry in the back of his pickup truck to take them to safety.
Eventually, Diane and Matt found Tim at school, and reunited with Gary and their neighbors on a hill near their neighborhood.
“We just stood there and watched the whole neighborhood,” Gary said. “All the smoke and airplanes and everything, coming over the top of us.”
The Gretters then drove to Gary’s father’s home in South San Francisco, where, he said, their worst fears began settling in: not knowing whether their home of more than two decades would be standing the next day.
“We’re watching this on TV and, when you’re looking at your whole neighborhood on fire, you think you know where the streets are but you can’t tell because there are so many houses on fire,” Gary said. “Then we found out then the fire department didn’t have any water. That’s when we thought our house was gone.”
Luckily, their home experienced only minor damage. Their front door was broken down by firefighters, the front windows were melted and they lost two refrigerators in the garage. The heat of the fire also curled the roof of the home, so it had to be replaced.
They only had to spend 10 days in a hotel.
Most important: family
For Diane, damage to the home was the last of her worries. She had her boys and her pictures.
“For me personally, because I knew where all of them were, I didn’t have to worry,” she said. “If we lose the house, we lose the house. At least I know where my family is.”
For Tim, the tragedy changed the way he thinks about the town. San Bruno is no longer just the place in which he grew up. It’s what he stands for.
“I’ve always been brought up to realize that I’m from San Bruno and I play for San Bruno, so I felt more obligated to play for the name that’s on the front of my jersey,” he said.
To insure that he and his baseball teammates remember where they come from, the Mustangs' uniform's will be emblazoned with a memento of the explosion and fire this season.
The initials "SB" will be stitched into the back of the Capuchino High baseball team's caps.
“I’ve always taken it to heart because there a lot of kids who are from San Bruno who don’t want to go to Capuchino,” said Tim, staring at his hat. “They want to go to Burlingame High or Serra High, and they runaway from our city. But I felt more of a passion for where I’m from and I love playing for my town.”
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.