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For Couple Who Stayed in Neighborhood, Rebuilding Was Therapy

It only took the Bishops, longtime San Bruno residents, four months to repair their home after the Sept. 9 fire. Now they're wondering when everyone else will do the same.

The Bishops didn’t waste any time.

As soon as they could line up a contractor and clear their home for repair after the Sept. 9 pipeline explosion, Bill and Nellie Bishop began working to get their Claremont Drive house back in shape.

Their home sustained holes in the ceiling from falling boulders after the blast as well as extensive damage to the interior. Thick, black soot covered furniture in most of the rooms. Despite the turmoil, they decided to live in the house while it was being repaired.

“We wanted to make sure that we were here for everything,” said Nellie Bishop, 61. “To me, it was part of the healing process.”

Her husband, Bill Bishop, also 61, added: “I was just thinking, ‘Let’s get on it right away before they forget about us.'”

Rebuilding so quickly after the disaster was certainly no race to be first for the Bishops, both of whom are retired and longtime San Bruno residents. To them, quickly making repairs and living in their own home was therapy that would help them return to normal.

But they are among the exceptions.

Others still struggle

On the Bishops' block, many homes are among the 38 houses destroyed in the fire. Some of their neighbors died in the explosion and flames that followed. Several who are in the middle of rebuilding or repairing are taking a long time to make the next steps because they can't shake off the emotional trauma. Still others haven’t decided, even a year later, whether to move back into the neighborhood, where the memories of their homes ablaze in the fiery inferno are just too painful to bear.

What is clear is that everyone, from those who lost their homes to those whose houses weren’t damaged at all, has been dealing with the aftermath of the explosion differently

Given Bill’s stoic, sometimes playful demeanor and Nellie’s bubbly, gregarious personality, the Bishops represent a group of residents who have already moved on. They were shaken by the explosion, but are ready to get back to normal in the community they have grown to love.

“A lot of people my age, as they retire, they usually sell their house and move,” said Bill, who has been coaching softball for 30 years and is the president of the San Bruno Storm girls softball league. “But our daughters are here and all of our grandkids are here. Our roots are very deep. So it would be hard to just pack up and say, ‘Let’s get out of here.’”

That they survived the fire and found their home virtually intact, Nellie said, strengthened their desire to stay in the neighborhood.

First shaking, then fire

On the night of the explosion, Bill and Nellie had just sat down in their family room to have a cup of coffee and watch the 6 o’clock news. Suddenly, the house shook violently and debris began crashing through the ceiling.

Their first thought, like those of many, was that an earthquake had struck.

On instinct, they both headed for their antique oak and steel phone booth—which actually still takes calls—located in their garage, as it was likely the sturdiest place in the house.

After a while, Bill popped his head out of the phone booth and peaked through the doorway back into the house. Through a window he saw flames inching their way from the canyon to his home. The couple knew they had to leave.

Nellie sent Bill to get his wallet in one of the back rooms. But just as he went to retrieve it, a 3-foot boulder crashed through the ceiling, rolled through the room and hallway, and landed in the bathtub.

Holding on to each other as they rushed out of their still-violently-shaking home, they made it to their truck parked in the driveway. From there they saw complete chaos in the neighborhood: people running for their lives, red balls of fire flying through the air, emergency vehicles speeding to people’s rescue. After trying to help some neighbors, Bill and Nellie eventually got in their truck and made their way out of the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, one of Nellie’s daughters was driving up San Bruno Avenue with her three children, trying to get to her parents. But she was stopped by an undercover police officer, who had halted traffic. Their daughter was frantic, unsure if her parents had made it out alive.

“Thank God there was an undercover police officer there who stopped traffic,” Nellie recalled. If her daughter had made it to the neighborhood just moments later, they would have missed each other. Her daughter and grandchildren might have been trapped in the blaze themselves.

Some time later, Bill and Nellie made it down Sneath Lane to their daughter’s house, where the family finally reunited.

Nellie remembers her oldest granddaughter literally jumping head-first through the driver-side window and landing in Bill’s lap to embrace them. Their other grandchildren then ran into their arms.

“It was a homecoming like I couldn’t describe,” Nellie said, choking up as she remembered the moment.

Taking next steps to recover

They ended up staying at their daughter’s home for six days.

That was long enough to be away from their house, they thought. So they began planning repairs to their home as soon as they could.

Bill admits he pushed hard on the repair workers because the Bishops' insurance company said everything could be fixed and he didn’t want any delays.

“They told me they were going to fix everything,” he said. “So I was like, ‘What are you waiting for?’”

In all, it took four months to repair everything and cost about $140,000, which their insurance company did indeed cover.

The only frustration they have now is not knowing whether their neighbors will ever return to the neighborhood.

Bill and Nellie's home is now the new corner lot on their side of Claremont, since the fire destroyed six houses as it raged downhill toward them. Nights can be eerie because there isn’t much foot or car traffic, the couple said. Loud, random noises often startle them.

But they believe patience is a virtue.

Despite their push to repair their home, restore their community and return to the lives they knew, they’ve realized they can only do so much.

“As our therapist said, ‘Things will get better,’” Nellie said. “It will take time.”

All this week, San Bruno Patch looks back at Sept. 9, 2010, and talks with people affected about their lives in the past year.

Monday: One Year Later
Tuesday: Struggling To Go Forward
Wednesday: Rebuilding, Recovering
Thursday: Learning What's Important
Friday: Supporting One Another, Little Help for Renters
Saturday: In Memoriam

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.

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