San Bruno residents allowed to return home

The stench of smoke still lingered along parts of Claremont Drive on Sunday as San Bruno residents swept through ash just three days after a natural-gas pipeline exploded in a ball of fire.

It was only the lucky ones — residents of 294 homes — who were allowed to return home Sunday evening once inspectors deemed their houses safe.

There were still 83 homes unoccupied as of Sunday night, according to San Bruno city officials.

Rudy Von Tomaszewski, who bought his house on Claremont Drive in 1983, was tossing out frozen meat and other spoiled food stored in his garage after he was allowed back inside his home Sunday.

“Little by little, we are discovering what items are ruined,” the 67-year-old said as he pointed to cracked windows and melted pane on the back side of his house. “Right now, we are just trying to put our life together. I think it will hit us all later.”

Residents in this upper-middle-class neighborhood tucked in the hills of San Bruno spent the weekend at nearby hotels and with family as they fretted about the fate of their homes.

It wasn’t until Sunday morning when evicted residents were told to gather at Skyline College. There, city workers and PG&E officials went address by address, informing residents as to whether their home was inhabitable or not.

Homes that were “green-tagged” were considered safe and ready for occupation. The homes that were “yellow-tagged” were still considered unsafe due to problems such as smoke damage.

And then there were the homes that were slapped with red tags, the ones that building-code inspectors had deemed uninhabitable.

Although Nelson Alvarado and his girlfriend, Tina Villarrael, had lost their home in the fire, the couple still considered themselves lucky. Tina, who is eight months pregnant, wasn’t home at the time of the explosion.

“The house is destroyed, but I’m just glad everyone is OK,” Alvarado said after learning that his house was red-tagged.  

“We are just trying to find out how we are going to be stable because the baby will come any day now,” Villarrael said.

City officials told the couple to join them this morning at the Senior Center, where they will start helping with housing.

As residents slowly made their way back to the vacant neighborhood, the shock was still strong. Teary-eyed neighbors stood outside their green-tagged homes, swapping stories about where they were sitting or what they were cooking when their houses were rocked by the explosion that many mistook for a plane crash.

Others just tried to move forward, doing regular chores around the house — watering their lawns and sweeping their porches.

“I’m just trying to revive my plants a little,” said Martha Avilez, who was watering her lawn while she waited for her tea to brew.

Less than a block from Avilez’s home, police had blocked off the rest of Claremont Street, where destruction blanketed the area. Remnants of homes were scattered around — fences, trees and burned cars smothered in ash.

Police continued to comb the area for human remains. Authorities said the remains of four people have been discovered, four people are missing and at least 60 are injured.

“It’s just about rebuilding this neighborhood,” said 33-year-old Michael Basilio, who was helping his parents move back inside the house where he grew up. “PG&E needs to step up and rebuild this neighborhood if it is their fault.”

esherbert@sfexaminer.com

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