On the early evening of Sept. 9, 2010, Kevin Ashley ran to his children in their rented two-bedroom home in the Crestmoor area of San Bruno.
Their house was shaking. Outside, a dark yellow orange colored the mid-evening sky. Ashley, 37, thought it was an earthquake. He grabbed his two children—Kalea, 1, and Jaden, 4—from their bedrooms and took cover. But when he looked out the window, he felt immense heat, and saw a wave of flame cascading above the eucalyptus trees.
Ashley ran with his children out of the house. His plan was to speed away in their white Toyota Camry. As he began loading his children into the car, he saw a fireball rushing down the street. The flames were rolling like an ocean.
“We would’ve never made it,” he said. “I grabbed my children’s hands and began running. We ran until we saw daylight.”
The PG&E explosion took eight lives, destroyed 38 homes, and did $86 million worth of damage, leaving PG&E with the dilemma of how to fiscally measure a life-altering event.
PG&E responded shortly after with the Rebuild San Bruno Fund relief program for people who owned homes that were destroyed and or damaged to help with rebuilding. Homeowners received funds based on the severity of the damage done by the explosion. Owners with houses “red tagged”—to note total destruction—qualified for an initial check of $50,000; those with houses “yellow tagged”—to note the house as uninhabitable—qualified for $25,000; and owners with houses “green tagged”—to note some damage—received $15,000.
“PG&E has reached out to all of the homeowners whose homes were destroyed or significantly damaged in the accident,” said PG&E spokesperson Brittany Chord. “Many have decided to rebuild or move forward on their own, and others haven't made a decision yet. It is ultimately up to the individual owner, but we stand ready to help any homeowner affected by this tragedy through the rebuilding or purchasing process.”
The problem for the Ashley family, however, was that they weren’t homeowners. They were renters. An examination of records and interviews by Patch shows that one year later, renters found far less compensation available to them.
Renters occupied more than 18 percent of the homes destroyed and damaged in the explosion according to the city’s property tax records. PG&E told Patch the program was created to help homeowners. Left out of the program, renters who survived the tragic ordeal received some compensation from PG&E outside of the Rebuild San Bruno Fund relief program, but were largely on their own, depending on how much renter’s insurance they may have carried at the time.
Ashley, and other renters interviewed by Patch, said PG&E did give some financial assistance. He said his family, who lost all of their possessions, stayed in a Best Western in Millbrae for three nights at PG&E’s expense. He also said the company gave them money, though he wouldn’t disclose the amount.
Then, it was up to them to rebuild a new life on their own.
The variance between the PG&E financial assistance given to homeowners versus renters was significant.
One family of homeowners, who preferred anonymity, received an immediate payment of $50,000 from PG&E. They received an additional $2,500 from city donations, an additional $234,000 from their insurance company for building repairs, $142,000 for their possessions, and stand to receive an additional $50,000 from PG&E when they finish rebuilding their home. It’s all a part of the Rebuild San Bruno Fund for which they qualified.
Stipends paid in some cases went beyond replacing materialistic goods, and included therapeutic costs needed to help with post traumatic stress syndrome, a common disorder realized after experiencing an explosion of this magnitude.
A renter who suffered the same experience received a maximum payout of $50,000, about a quarter of what owners received for their possessions after city donations and insurance claims were collected.
The San Bruno explosion destroyed 38 homes. Since that day, PG&E has purchased three homes: 1660 and 1650 Claremont Drive and 981 Glenview Drive. The utility has also purchased three empty lots.
“The owner of each of the three homes chose to participate in the purchase program,” said Chord, explaining why these three homes were chosen above the others to be the first purchased. “Following the purchase of these homes, PG&E is now making the necessary repairs so that the homes can be sold at today's fair market value.”
The company purchased the homes based on the Sept. 8, 2010, appraised market value said Chord. The homes will be sold at the fair, current market value and the money will be redistributed back into the Rebuild San Bruno Fund, according to PG&E.
The transfer values of 1650 Claremont and 981 Glenview are both listed as $780,000; 1660 Claremont was listed at $670,000.
In early 2011, the city of San Bruno conducted an assessment of all affected homes, finding 101 residences reported at least some damage from the explosion. Thirty-eight homes were considered destroyed, and 17 others were rendered uninhabitable due to serious damage, according to San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson. The remaining 46 homes sustained limited damage, such as melted siding and shattered windows.
Maxine Rudstrom owns a three-bedroom home located at 1100 Glenview that she rents to others. The home was destroyed. Rudstrom qualifies for assistance to rebuild her home, though she was not living there at the time of the explosion. Those renting the home do not qualify.
Six other renters besides the Ashley family occupied the homes at 1646 Claremont, 2741 Concord Way, 2770 Concord Way, 950 Glenview, 1701 Earl Ave. and 1115 Fairmont Drive. Five of these were totally destroyed, and two others were deemed unlivable due to the damage.
Like the Ashleys, the renters received initial assistance to rebuild their lives—approximately a quarter of what any non-renting family received to replace their possessions.
Besides the destroyed and purchased homes, dozens of other houses remain in various stages of repair.
City records show seven homes—1646, 1700, 1701, 1710 Claremont, 1106 and 1110 Fairmont, and 1127 Glenview—have all received building permits. Three homes—1642 Claremont and 960 and 970 Glenview - have completed planning review and are in the building check process. Two homes—1621 Claremont and 2725 Concord—are in the design and review process.
The Ashley family has since relocated to South San Francisco. They have slowly started to rebuild their lives, replacing shoes, socks, spoons, forks, couches and all the necessities of life after their possessions were obliterated on that otherwise ordinary Thursday evening.
Kevin Ashley says he does not begrudge PG&E, and appreciates what help they did give, but admits starting over has been daunting.
“It’s been hard,” he said. “I’m thankful everyone is alive. What else can I say? Some people lost everything. What we lost we can replace. It’s just been a long journey trying to replace it all.”
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
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.