South Asians in San Bruno Rocked by Massive Gas Explosion

South Asians in San Bruno Rocked by Massive Gas Explosion

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San Bruno, Calif., resident Vijay Duggal thought a missile had hit his house on the evening of Sept. 9.

“I heard a very loud explosion and then the whole house started shaking like we were in an earthquake,” Duggal told India-West. “I opened the curtains to look outside, and a huge ball of fire was coming towards our house.”

Duggal quickly gathered his wife Rebecca and her 80-year-old mother Lily Menache, who was in her nightgown. The Duggals then joined their neighbors on the street to flee the impending disaster.

“It was complete chaos,” said Duggal. “There were fireballs all around, it was so hot.”

A Pacific Gas and Electric natural underground gas pipe burst Sept. 9 in the Crestmoor Canyon/Glenview neighborhood of San Bruno, setting off a massive explosion and several fires that left four dead. More than 40 homes in the area have completely burned down.

Several residents of the area told local media they had smelled gas for several days before the explosion. California State Assemblyman Jerry Hill, who represents San Bruno, told India-West that the National Transportation Security Board is conducting an investigation into the cause of the disaster, which may take more than a year to conclude.

A preliminary investigation indicated that the burst pipeline was more than 50 years old, said Hill.

“Are existing regulations adequate to handle aging infrastructure,” queried Hill, noting that he was planning to introduce legislation that would mandate PG&E to perform routine inspections and to disclose the locations of 100 “high-risk” pipelines. Hill alleged the corporation has thus far refused to disclose the locations because of fears of terrorism.

Hill’s legislation would also mandate PG&E to install automatic remote safety valves. “One of the problems here was that it took so long to shut down the pipe,” he said.

PG&E has made a $100 million pledge to help victims restore their homes and lives.

“The community has rallied tremendously to support the victims,” said Hill, adding, “They will be made whole again by PG&E.”

The Duggals’ home – where the family has lived since 1979 – was mostly spared, save for some smoke damage, and a fence that was broken down by neighbors trying to flee the fires. Duggal’s Sikh neighbor, five homes down, was not so lucky: his home has been burned completely and is unsalvageable. Duggal did not know the name of his neighbor, but confirmed that the Indian American family is all safe and have been evacuated to a local shelter.

India-West was not able to confirm that the home belonged to Sukhdev Singh Attal and Amarjeet Kaur, who live near the Duggals. But Attal was seen talking to reporters outside a Red Cross shelter on Sept. 10.

Vimla Raj, a long-time India-West reader, said her house had been hit with a lot of debris and smoke damage.

“It was so scary. I saw the smoke from our window, and so many fires,” said Raj, who lives about two miles away from the affected neighborhood.

“It was so depressing to see whole houses burning down, one by one. I couldn’t sleep all night – I just kept watching,” said Raj, who has lived in her home for 42 years and raised her two children there.

San Bruno, a peninsular suburb of San Francisco, is home to a large number of Indians from Fiji, who began immigrating to the area around 1980. The Sanatan Mandir serves as a focal point for the local community – at least 200 people gather at the temple every Tuesday for weekly prayer services.

Rajeshwar Singh, who serves on the board of the mandir, told India-West that the temple’s administration has already begun a donation drive and will partner with local agencies to assist victims of the disaster.

Singh, who lives one-and-a-half miles away from the Crestmoor Canyon, said he saw the fires and massive amounts of smoke billowing from the neighborhood as he drove home from work that evening. He immediately went to a local shelter at the Bayhill Center to try to assist the victims.

Several local Indian businesses — including Amma’s Curry House, Neelam’s Groceries, and India Foods — all told India-West they were unaffected by the incident and that business was carrying on as usual.

Paul Ram, son of the late political activist Lahori Ram, told India-West his family has raised more than $2,500 for victims of the explosion and fires. The Rams lived in San Bruno for many years before moving to Hillsborough, and still own an apartment complex there.

The American Red Cross said it is unable to accept any more donations of food and clothing, but is urging people to give cash donations instead.

photo credit: The AP, courtesy of India West