Japanese woman escapes fire with second degree burns, loses home

WHAT NOW? — Fumie and Masao Tanaka lost their house to the massive Sept. 9 San Bruno fire, which destroyed nearly all their possessions, photo by Tomo Hirai

More than a month has passed since a 30-inch steel natural gas main exploded in the normally quiet Glenview neighborhood of San Bruno. The cause of the blast is still unclear, but what is known is that more than 50 homes were damaged, 37 of which were completely destroyed, eight people were killed, and many more were injured.

San Bruno, a predominantly working-class community of about 44,000 people, is adjacent to the San Francisco International Airport. The city’s mayor, Jim Ruane, thrust into the limelight with restoring order to the city, described residents as “the closest to a slice of ‘American pie’ that you could ever experience.”

Along with city and state officials, families living in the affected neighborhood are posed with the challenge of deciding what comes next.

A couple picking up the pieces

Masao and Fumie Tanaka lived down the street from the explosion. The flames and the scorching winds burned down their home, along with most of their worldly possessions.

Masao, who came to the United States in 1978, met Fumie, who came to help her sister run a restaurant, in 1983. The couple has no children, but has been together for more than two decades. They bought their first house in San Bruno and lived there for 18 years.

The couple, both Japanese nationals, were the only Japanese citizens affected by the blast, according to the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco. On the day of the fire, Masao was working in San Francisco at Seikatsu Soko. Fumie was home during the incident.

The fire left the couple with only the clothes on their backs, their 1989 Toyota Land Cruiser, an iron wine rack, one yunomi (Japanese tea cup) and a diamond ring. Everything else was reduced to ash and rubble.

The iron wine rack was charred but still in its original shape. Masao found it amidst the rubble; polished and repainted, it now sits in their rented temporary apartment in Daly City. The yunomi had miraculously survived the fire and came out relatively unscathed. The inside, however, has a small scorch mark that refuses to come off, a permanent reminder.

“It’s seared on,” Masao said during an interview conducted in Japanese. “No matter how much we try to polish it off, I think it’s permanently there.”

“We found the ring next to the car,” said Fumie. The couple toured the wreckage of the neighborhood with other residents to survey the damage. “The ring was inside a box when we found it. We shook it and heard something rattling inside. I thought, ‘Oh, something’s in here,’ and sure enough the ring was inside.”

It was the only piece of jewelry to survive the fire. “We had emeralds and pearls, we had seven or eight pearl necklaces. They were melted or reduced to ash,” said Masao.

Road to recovery

On Oct. 12, the city declared that the area was finally clear of debris. Residents must now decide what to do with the cleared land.

As a sign of goodwill, PG&E gave out a $15,000 to $50,000 check to each household affected by the fire. The Tanakas accepted the $50,000 check from the company, which they said will go toward rebuilding their house. The Tanakas now aim to rebuild their house, if not make it a little larger than before. They figure if they “replace the pipes under the house, it has to be safer than before.”

Some neighbors, however, disagree with the Tanakas, calling for PG&E to remove the pipes from their neighborhood. Several residents have filed class action lawsuits charging PG&E was negligent.

The Tanakas chose not to take part in the lawsuits, but are displeased with PG&E. “The people at the top of PG&E, I don’t like. They padded their wallets instead of fixing the pipes,” said Fumie.

The night of the fire

While the Tanakas escaped with their lives intact, Fumie suffered second degree burns from the scorching heat of the fires that engulfed her neighborhood.

“It was about 6:15 or so when I heard a huge explosion. I looked outside to see the flames down the street. I thought a plane fell,” said Fumie.

Like many residents, Fumie was confused about what was going on.

Fifteen minutes later, as she was running around her house gathering her insurance information, she looked outside to see the house across from her on fire and the car parked on the driveway in flames.

She went downstairs to her garage and attempted to open the back door to leave the house. The intense heat outside kept her from leaving the house. Unbeknownst to her, her neighbor’s house was in flames by this time. She went back upstairs to get a gallon jug of water and a big bath towel.

It was around 6:45 p.m., half an hour after the gas main’s explosion, when she realized she had to get out of the house. “I went back upstairs and the living room was pitch-dark from the smoke. The windows had also blown in from the heat, and embers were settling into the house.”

She returned downstairs and doused herself with the water and wrapped herself in the bath towel. She later realized this helped to save her; the sheer heat of the flames burnt a section of her legs that her pants did not cover.

She ran out toward the epicenter of the explosion since those houses were already burnt and gone. She kept her head shrouded in the towel. Her neighbor’s house had been reduced to ashes, and the fence on the side of her house was also gone. No one was around. “There wasn’t a single person around me,” she recalled. “No fire crews, no other survivors, nothing.”

Fumie ran down the street and saw a number of firefighters down the street. They waved for her to come over to them. She claims the conditions of the fire kept the emergency crews from coming any closer to help her.

According to Fire Chief Dennis Haag, the fire department quickly identified the fire was a natural gas explosion; the blast also destroyed a water main forcing fire crews to locate another source of water two miles away. Fumie thought that these conditions kept rescue crews from approaching her any further than they had.

Once Fumie reached the firefighters, they took her to a police street closure where she was then transported to an evacuation site.

It would be another two or three hours before she would notice the burns on her legs. She was then taken to Kaiser Hospital. “I was talking with my next-door neighbor when I felt my leg flare up in pain.” She arrived at the hospital, and it was then at 10 p.m. — four hours after the initial explosion — that the doctors contacted Masao to tell him where his wife was.

Masao never made it back to his home that night. “I saw the smoke from the freeway, but I only thought it was some place close to us, not us,” he said.

When he tried to turn down the street he normally takes to get home, the area was cordoned off. It was then he realized his house was probably gone. He took a detour, but found there was no way around the roadblocks to his house. He parked his car in a parking lot down the street from the site of the explosion and tried to make his way to his house.

“I told the fire crews, ‘My house is on fire, let me through,’ but they wouldn’t let me,” he said. Masao stood around, waiting in vain for two hours before he went to eat at a local restaurant and collect his thoughts. It was then the hospital called him.

The Tanakas took refuge in a shelter that night and were glad to see the overwhelming sincerity and help extended toward them by the local charities, insurance companies, PG&E and the government.

“The people who came to help us were really nice. The PG&E employees even gave us their cell phone numbers and told us to call them if there was anything they could do, may it be a night or weekend,” said Fumie.

The shelter provided residents access to insurance agents and government organizations to help them through the required paperwork as fast as they could so that the long process of rebuilding could be expedited. U.S. immigration waived the fees for replacing their green cards, and the insurance companies helped them through what would normally be an arduous process.

“They would ask us what was in each room, and we can’t remember that exactly,” said Fumie.

After the fire

The Tanakas were moved to a hotel for five days before their insurance company provided them with an apartment in Daly City. It also took five days for them to return to the burnt out neighborhood, according to statements from the city of San Bruno. Normalcy was still far off.

WHAT THEY FOUND – They salvaged a tea cup and diamond ring (above right) from the wreckage. photos by Tomo Hirai

“They provided us with beds, a basic set of dishes, towels and toilet paper along with the apartment, but we realized as Asians, we needed our chawan and donburi,” said Masao.

Fumie recalls that a lack of a proper bowl required her to eat ramen out of a single pot with her husband. “We just laughed it off though,” she said.

The city and its citizens have a long road ahead in rebuilding and getting to the root of this disaster. All they can do is slowly rebuild, along with the Tanakas.

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