Southern California -- this just in

« Previous Post | L.A. NOW Home | Next Post »

San Bruno burn victim recalls explosion

September 10, 2010 |  1:52 pm

San Bruno resident Gayle Masunu, 59, sat in a friend's driveway on a hill above her smoldering neighborhood thinking about the home she had lost. News helicopters circled overhead, a constant reminder of the explosion.

"I don't like that sound," Masunu said, her face and hand bandaged in white gauze. "That's what it sounded like."

Hours earlier on Thursday evening, Masunu was inside her mother's green ranch house at 1700 Claremont Drive when she heard the explosion around the corner shortly before 6:30 p.m.

"All of a sudden I heard something go voom, voom -- it sounded like a helicopter propeller," said Masunu, a preschool teacher who had taken time off to care for her 83-year-old mother, who had recently suffered two strokes.

Masunu said she did not immediately flee the house.

"I didn't know exactly what to do because I didn't know what it was," she said.

Instead, she opened the front door and was hit with a wave of heat that was already melting cars.

Masunu realized that she could not leave -- she and her mother were in their pajamas, her mother was barefoot. Masunu headed for a back bedroom to grab some clothes, including a fleece and blue jeans, but dense smoke forced her to turn back before she could get her mother's shoes.

By the time the pair emerged from the house, Masunu had burns on her left cheek, arm and across her back. The heat had seared through her gray fleece and across her back, she said. Before she fled the house, she tried to wet a kitchen towel and hold it to her cheek, but the water would not flow -- the neighborhood water grid had blown in the explosion, firefighters later said.

Outside, the neighborhood had already devolved into chaos. Neighbors were running away from Claremont Drive. A stranger loaded Masunu's mother, Loretta Groulx, into a white van because she could not get far with bare feet. Masunu took off up Vermont Way. Another stranger gave her a ride to a friend's home, where she was later taken to Mills-Peninsula Health Services for treatment of first- and second-degree burns. Her mother is being treated in the trauma center at San Francisco General Hospital.

Masunu's house, which she spotted on television, is in ruins. She does not want to return to see what remains of the house.

"There's nothing really to see except ashes," she said.

She lost loads of her late sister's memorabilia signed by Willie Mays and other greats, a computer and picture frames full of family photographs.

But Masunu said she was grateful to be alive.

"We're lucky," she said, "because it didn't blow up the house."

Masunu said she does not have health insurance and is not sure how she will pay her medical bills. She is also not sure what sort of home insurance coverage her mother had.

She said she hopes Pacific Gas & Electric helps her and other injured residents cover their medical expenses.

"They said they were taking responsibility," she said.

Masunu was in shock late Friday, occasionally teary, worried about her elderly neighbors and her mother. Her 4-year-old grandson, Giovanni Masunu Hernandez, provided a temporary distraction.

"Grandma, you can come play in my house," he offered.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in San Bruno

Photos: Fire in San Bruno