The San Bruno Fire: Respond and Recover

Thursday September 9th, 2010 was wrapping up like any other Thursday.  Nothing seemed much different except that the office phone was ringing much more frequently during the last hour of training.  I thought to myself, “These telemarketers are being very aggressive tonight.”  When I got done with work I checked the messages and instantly wished the calls were from telemarketers.  Instead, it was my dad telling me there was an explosion and a tremendous fire one block away from their house and he told me to get into contact with him ASAP.  Right away I was flooded with emotions of uncertainty.  What exactly happened, was he safe, was my mom safe, what about the house, our neighbors and friends?  It was hard not to allow my mind to race with thoughts of the worst possible situation.

My dad took this picture right out of his garage just after the blast

To give you some perspective, San Bruno is a small suburb located 15 minutes south of San Francisco with a population of about 40 thousand people.  This is a modest and quiet suburb where people go to live and stay; raising their families and building relationships with their neighbors.  People are close to one another and when a tragedy like this occurs the situation becomes emotionally charged rather quickly.

I rushed back to my hometown in an attempt to reunite with my parents and to get some answers to what happened that evening.  I drove up as far as the barricades allowed, seeing flames in the sky, small amounts of smoke, and the smell of gas in the air.  I finally reunite with my parents at a local strip mall a few miles from the blast with a sense of relief at the sight of their safety.  For the next few hours other families gathered looking for loved ones, exchanging their personal stories of the event and waiting to hear any official information as to what exactly happened and what to do next.

Helicopter dropping fire retardant on the flames

The complete aftermath of the destruction was not known that evening or during the next few days that followed.  All residents in the area were not allowed back into the neighborhood.  Evacuees were unable to carry out belongings and many were left without clothes, money, or photo id.  In the back of everyone’s mind were thoughts of whether or not it was the last time they would ever go back to the place they called home.

Over the next few days many of the evacuated residents and their families gathered at the city park where a mini community was established catering to the neighborhood’s needs.  The Red Cross and priests from the local Catholic Church checked people in and kept records of those who were accounted for and those still missing.  There was a steady wave of food and clothing donations for the local San Bruno residents allowing the evacuees the chance to get some fresh clothes.  The local Lion’s Club and many local restaurant establishments provided a constant array of food making sure no one was left hungry.  There were also several professional businesses there to aid with anyone’s needs from charging their cell phone, checking email, getting pet supplies and starting the claim process with insurance companies.  These caring people made the days after the fire as comfortable as possible keeping the focus off the tragedy and more on the healing.

photo cred: Frank Quirarte Photography
The 25ft long x 13ft deep hole where the gas line blew out photo cred: Frank Quirarte Photography


My parents and close friend’s families’ houses were deemed safe to enter and were allowed to return after three days.  Upon re-entering the neighborhood the weight of the tragedy began to sink in.  The rupture of the 30-inch natural gas transmission line in San Bruno’s Crestmoor Canyon sparked a massive explosion and fire that killed eight people, injured more than 50 others, and destroyed 37 homes.  After giving my family home the once-over, I went with a friend around the neighborhood to see for ourselves what was left of the streets we used to play in.

Certain areas where the blast was concentrated left the streets resembling nothing of what they looked like just a few days ago.  Rubble littered the streets, cars completely melted down to the frame, and lots with nothing standing but chimney stacks created an eerie, clear panoramic view of four corners of the neighborhood.  The reality was terrible, especially for those who lost their homes and some their lives.

Several of the homes completely burned to the ground

After the initial shock of seeing the tragic condition of my neighborhood, I could not help but feel that there was a small silver lining within these dark few days.  Although the streets were quieter than usual, we were not alone while walking though the neighborhood.  Many of the residents were not afraid to return to the area.  Most expressed strong, encouraging smiles and hugs for other neighbors.  Even people who do not regularly see each other acted as a family offering help and support.  There was no anger or extreme sadness; just an abundance of well wishes, gestures of lending a helping hand and a strong focus on rebuilding the neighborhood as soon as possible.

Upon further reflection, I realized that the people of San Bruno and neighboring cities performed admirably and did as much as they could during this dreadful situation.  The timely execution of combining unique training skills allowed everyone to work together to not only extinguish the fire, but to keeping peoples’ spirits alive.  It was refreshing to know that the community easily came together as a whole; residents, volunteers, and the professionals were all strong and supportive.

As details of the horrific event unfolded during the next few weeks, I was most impressed with the stories of unyielding strength and determination expressed by the first responders.  The firefighters exemplified what it means to rely on all their everyday training.  They worked tirelessly under pressure to perform their job successfully under the worst conditions imaginable.  I was told by two of my gym members, who were first on the scene, that the fire was nothing like they have ever fought before.  The height of the flames and intensity of the heat from the fueling gas made it difficult to contain.  As if the immense heat was not enough to contend with, the initial blast blew out the water main close to the fire and the firefighters had to quickly run their heavy two inch water lines up the streets to neighboring areas to make water available to fight the fire and save surrounding homes.  The firefighters continuously worked 10+ hour shifts fighting both physical and mental exhaustion.  One of my firefighter gym members told me that he had to hold a hose for hours at a time even when his forearms where beyond fatigued.

One of the Rise Above Firefighters on the scene photo cred: Frank Quirarte Photography

As unbelievable as these stories sounded, I am truly thankful that all of the firefighters on the job were the best around.  These men and women are the ones who push themselves to the limit during their everyday training knowing that it may be easy to quit or to forgo the last few reps but deep down they find the strength to push on because they know that if a situation like the San Bruno Fire occurs they will be ready to respond quickly and minimize the houses and lives lost.

I am truly proud to cater many of RISE ABOVE’s training sessions to the demanding needs of these first responder professionals.  I was able to witness the importance of everyday training and the positive effect it can have on so many lives.  I am humbled by the fact that many of the first responders from RISE ABOVE contribute their ability to perform at their highest level to their everyday training.  I am proud that my gym members as well as all the first responders exemplified strong minds and bodies enhanced from their everyday training.

The success in dealing with the San Bruno Fire comes down to people trained in different areas of expertise coming together and executing their skills to create a united front to physically and emotionally support the residents affected by the tragedy.  More and more I realize that it is the individual training that is so crucial to successfully deal with such events.

The days immediately following the San Bruno Fire were a rollercoaster ride of emotions and it took unwavering physical and mental strength by an entire community to move forward.  I was very impressed to see how the San Bruno community holds many of the same goals and values that I consider most prevalent for the success of the RISE ABOVE gym.  I realize that the standards set for my gym and myself are a direct reflection of my upbringing in a strong, supportive neighborhood.  The support from my childhood neighborhood has instilled these goals in me laying the foundation for many of my current accomplishments.  I now feel even more fortunate to be part of the San Bruno community where neighbors who watched me grow up were still there to support one another after all these years.

The clean up and rebuilding process begins

Whenever I come to a crossroads in my life, business or training, I will draw upon this experience and push myself and the people I train just a bit further to realize their potential and ability to do so much more.  I now appreciate more than ever the importance of pushing myself and others to achieve their greatest potential, because we never know when we will be called upon to use our training.

In the spirit of the community giving so much back to San Bruno I will be having a Basic Kettlebell Workshop on Saturday October 30th 2010 from noon-3pm.  All of the money I receive for the seminar will be donated to a San Bruno charity.  To sign up, donate, or check out more information go to page here

Thanks to everyone for their well wishes and support through this endeavor.