Somber 5-Year Anniversary: San Bruno Remembers Deadly PG&E Blast

It’s been five years since the PG&E gas pipeline explosion leveled the Crestmoor neighborhood in San Bruno and claimed eight lives, but for Maria Barrr, it feels like five minutes.

"I heard an earthquake or a plane landing on my house. It was terrible, terrible noise," said Barr, who added she had to leave her house for two years as repairs were done. "I couldn’t open my door because there was a wind or a force that kept me from opening the door, so I ran to my backyard, jumped a fence, got trapped in my neighbor’s backyard. I knew I was going to die."

Fortunately for Barr, a neighbor walked by and was able to help free her. She said she went back days later to examine the damage at her home and saw melted steel, glass, and debris.

"It was like an oven, it was terrible to take a breath. It was like breathing fire it was so hot," she recalled. "I would not have lived had my neighbor not seen me there."

Meanwhile, survivor Joseph Ruigomez said his then-girlfriend Jessica Morales wouldn't want him to "dwell" on the past or be "depressed." Morales was killed in the explosion that destroyed 38 homes.

"You just got to pound it in your head — 'She would want you to be happy,'" said Ruigomez whose body was over 90 percent burned. "Try not to let those thoughts torment you and move on."

At 6 p.m. Wednesday night, the Crestmoor community held a remembrance in honor of those eight victims who died, one of whom Barr recalls having a conversation with earlier that morning.

It is these stories and the humanity of the situation that has driven San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane to press for more changes and transparency, both with PG&E and with the state regulatory agency tasked with overseeing utilities, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

The CPUC fined PG&E a record $1.6 billion in April while federal prosecutors are still trying to levy a fine up to $1.13 billion, with 28 criminal charges alleging safety violations and obstruction of justice.

On Monday night, PG&E filed five motions in federal court in San Francisco, seeking dismissal of those 28 charges. For Mayor Ruane, that’s enough to show the utility isn’t assuming full responsibility for the deadly blast and how it could have been prevented with better recordkeeping and maintenance. He said the company is also trying to benefit off of the $1.6 billion state fine.

"I know PG&E was fined $1.6 billion dollars few months ago. It’s trying to take a tax write-off for a portion of that money," said Ruane. "Jerry Hill, our local state senator is trying to get that rectified so hopefully legislators will recognize that’s just not correct."

In a statement to NBC Bay Area Wednesday, PG&E said it’s not doing interviews today out of respect for the victims and the community of San Bruno. Nick Stimmel, a PG&E spokesman, said the company has implemented many changes to enhance safety, including placing more than 800 miles of cast-iron pipeline with a seismically safe replacement, use of new gas leak detection technology 1,000 times more sensitive than the traditional equipment, and closing out ten of 12 recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board.

As for the move to dismiss the criminal charges, Stimmel said, "We do not believe that PG&E employees intentionally violated the federal Pipeline Safety Act, and that, even where mistakes were made, employees were acting in good faith."

It still isn’t enough for people like Barr, who vividly remembers the fireball in the sky, as well as the loss of friends and neighbors.

"It’s hard because I remember that last goodbye and I wonder, why did I live and they died? But then I hear voices that say, ‘So you can tell the story we cannot,'" she said. 

A federal court judge is set to hear the motions to dismiss the charges against PG&E in two weeks and then in October. The jury trial is scheduled for March 8, 2016.

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