San Bruno Explosion Causes Menlo Coach Anguish
June 9, 2011:
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Menlo College Head Baseball Coach Matt Daily recalls his experience shortly after the San Bruno pipeline explosion. Originally published in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.
One of the beautiful aspects of the game of baseball is its ability to heal.
Many may recall the significance of the 2001 World Series, and the Yankees playing their playoff game shortly after the 9/11 attacks on New York City. It was a memorable moment for all, as it presented something familiar and comforting despite the unrest and fear that the previous weeks had revealed. Here in San Francisco, the Giants have just won the World Series, much to the joy, triumph, and excitement of baseball fans across the Bay Area and Northern California.
In the City of San Bruno, in particular, it was nice to have something to smile and cheer about. San Bruno, California is located just south of the city of San Francisco, and it is a place where my wife and I have found happiness and comfort.
Three years ago, we stumbled upon the city. We were looking for a place to live that was close to both San Francisco, where my wife works, and close to Menlo Park, where I work at Menlo College. For us, it had been a rough and difficult fall, one that involved sadness, fear and loss of the simple things that made life fun.
On September 9, 2010, a massive natural gas pipe ruptured and exploded two blocks from my home, incinerating countless homes in an instant. Lives were lost, homes were destroyed, and my calm neighborhood was turned into a war zone.
On that particular Thursday in September, I was just putting the finishing touches on getting ready for fall practice.
We had finished up most of our meetings as a coaching staff for the day. It was a warm day for September, and my assistant, Matt Allison, had spent the last few hours edging the infield grass.
As I looked at my watch, my mind shifted to my wife, and how I had promised her that I would run a couple of errands that I had been neglecting. It was 6 p.m., and if I was lucky, I could make all of my stops and make it home at a reasonable hour.
She was set to fly out to Los Angeles in the morning for work, and I wanted to make sure she had the dry cleaning for her business trip.
David Tufo, my newest assistant coach, called me on my cell as I was driving. David grew up in San Bruno and lived a couple of blocks away from my wife and I.
I figured David had a follow-up question from the work day—baseball. I learned early in my career, it never seems to start or end. It is a constant process. David asked, "Coach, are you okay?"
My heart suddenly began to sink and race rapidly. Why would I not be okay? "An airplane just crashed into the gas station across the street from your house. I just got a call from my family...you need to get home."
To make matters worse, a gas line exploded in this area.
I am reminded of a quote that former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz had once offered, and it makes sense for me as I reflect back on the events of that day and of the moment after hearing David's words.
To paraphrase Coach Holtz' words, he explained: "If you have ever been directly involved in a crisis, a disaster, or even an emergency situation, I don't have to describe for you the emotions and reactions that come with a direct and personal involvement. If you have not, it is hard for me to describe it for you."
It will be hard for me to adequately describe the rush and mix of emotions of the next several hours, but I will try. My initial reaction to the news of a plane crash was, "Where is my wife? Is she okay? How is our dog, Maizy, who we had left at home?
Are They Alive?
Are they both home, and if so, are they alive? Flashes of fire, rubble, and panic raced through my imagination as I turned my car around and tried to get from Menlo Park back to San Bruno. Did I have a home anymore, or a wife and family?
I don't remember much about the drive from the college to San Bruno after seeing the smoke in the sky.
Several fire trucks passed me as I drove up El Camino Real, which made me feel a bit more uneasy. As I got closer to the fire zone, the now-familiar orange glow from the fire was shielded by thick black smoke from all directions.
Police and fire personnel had yet to form a real plan of action, as evidenced by the scurrying of the police and firemen themselves who were accustomed to keeping order. Police cars and fire trucks were parked in every which way—cars on the medians, cars driving the wrong way up streets.
It was like a game without rules. How strange. I had been able to learn that indeed the plane crash was not a crash at all, but a suspected gas pipe underneath the street that had exploded and the devastation of the explosion and ensuing fire gutted many cars and buildings.
instantly engulfed several homes at once.
Details were still sketchy, but the sense that something was terribly wrong was clear just by looking into the eyes of the veteran policemen. I had already tried calling my wife several times, with no answer. None of her friends or family had heard from her. What now?
At the intersection of Interstate 280 and San Bruno Ave., the main thoroughfare of the city, it was hard to breathe, see, or even make sense of what was going on two miles up the hill. Police blocked my way with my car, even as I pointed that I lived up at the fire area, and I needed to find my wife.
"You can park here," the Highway Patrolman said, pointing to nowhere in particular in the middle of the road. "But you can't go to your house."
I remember the heat and the smoke the most, as it was right next to me on the side of the road as I tried to run up the hill. As I ran up the hill, I was coughing and tired. I told myself that I needed to get in better shape.
The fire was close to our house, so much so that San Bruno Avenue was closed about a block from our house, leaving me with no direct way to get home.
After several wrong turns in the dark (the electricity was out), I waded through police and fire engines to the perimeter of the fire zone. Luckily, I could see our house, but the police tape perimeter was tied to the next door neighbor's fence. Our house looked okay. The winds were picking up, and it was unclear which direction they would blow. Finally, I had heard from my wife. She was okay, running up the hill as well, battling the fire and smoke as I just had moments earlier.
Our dog, Maizy, was alone inside our home, so it became important to get her out. I was allowed inside the home for a few moments to grab some clothes or whatever was necessary.
Things looked to be stable at our house, but there was no sense if things would change. We would need to evacuate immediately.
Maizy greeted me at the front door, oddly very calm. I envisioned she might be hiding under the bed after the blast, as she was home by herself. Instead, she was the calm one, looking up at me through the dark as if to say "let's go."
Familiar Voice Of Wife
It was dark—all of the power, gas, and phones were out due to the blast. Suddenly there was a familiar voice, my wife. She had made it up the two-mile hill. We only had a few moments before it was time to leave our home. Strange thoughts in a time of crisis - what do you grab? What do you want? Does it really matter since we are all alive? Do I grab pictures, clothes?
My younger brother and his wife suddenly appeared. Both he and his wife had been able to get their car closer to our home by taking back roads up the hill.
We packed four people and our dog, along with a few belongings into their car. It was time to go. Would we have a house to come back to later? Did it matter now that we were all safe?
As we left, it felt like a war zone. Smoke, air tankers and fire helicopters filled the air right by our house. Smoke, sirens, and red lights were everywhere.
Television trucks were parked with people wanting to know our reactions to such an event. I remember watching one young girl pleading with the policeman to go inside, as her family's home was near the initial explosion. I saw the interview several days later on the national news, as they lamented that this girl would lose loved ones in the fire. What had happened to our hillside neighborhood?
My wife, golden retriever and I were evacuated for four days. We were allowed back into our home, even though on just the other side of San Bruno Ave., 38 homes were destroyed, 100 were damaged, 50 people were injured, and seven were killed.
The quiet tranquility of our neighborhood had been replaced by PG&E trucks (Pacific Gas and Electric, the gas and electric provider for California), portable stadium lighting, and catastrophe response trailers. Several cars came into the neighborhood to get a glimpse of what had happened.
I wouldn't cross the street into the neighborhood for several weeks, as it felt unfair to visit an area that caused anguish for my neighbors. I just felt lucky that my family was alive.
The beauty of coaching baseball is the people and relationships with them that you form along the way. My voice mail filled up four times over the course of the days following the event as people called to check that I was okay.
I came back to Menlo College the day after the fire, seeking some sense of normalcy by being around the game. As I watched several of my current players practicing, I inevitably looked at them a bit differently than I did the day before.
Our staff had constantly spoken to our players about the importance of playing the game pitch by pitch, inning by inning, and moment to moment.
Today, flames have been replaced by bulldozers and water trucks that are removing the gutted remains of my neighbors' homes and lives.
Jackhammers have torn up the pavement on Glenview Drive, the same street that exploded 1,000 feet away. As I walk in the neighborhood right next to my house, I see that PG&E is trying to make the pipe safe for the long term. I am told they may even move the natural gas pipe completely out of our neighborhood.
I share with my players that it is important to learn from each experience, as it will make them better and more competitive players. I learned an important lesson from this personal experience. The most difficult part was being in a situation that I could not control, with very serious consequences.
I have learned that we cannot control events in our life, in baseball or otherwise.
In the eight weeks since the fire, I have tried to keep this lesson in mind as I work with our players, and be ready for the unexpected. Sometimes a positive result can come from a struggle or setback.