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San Bruno fire victims comforted at Friday Mass

September 10, 2010 |  3:20 pm

The Friday Mass at St. Robert's Catholic Church in San Bruno offered all the comforts of any other service: late summer sun streaming through stained glass. Peace-be-with-you handshakes and hugs. Father Roberto Andrey's ready smile. Communion wafers a little gluey on the roof of the mouth.

That, however, is where normal ended.

Archbishop George Niederauer, head of the San Francisco Archdiocese, had traveled down to San Bruno to celebrate Mass. The music included Bill Withers' lines: "Lean on me when you're not strong and I'll be your friend. I'll help you carry on." The convent doors had been thrown open to house evacuees.

And then there were the prayers. "For all of those who are affected by the fire…" "Lord hear our prayer." "For all the firefighters and police officers who worked tremendously…" "Lord hear our prayer." "For all the families and friends who lost loved ones…" "Lord hear our prayer." "May this ordeal bring us closer as a community…" "Lord hear our prayer."

In the aftermath of Thursday's gas main explosion, the graceful church in the leafy suburb did what it could to heal the reeling community. And it had a better vantage point than most houses of worship, situated as it is across the street from the Red Cross shelter where scores of residents affected by the conflagration slept, talked to insurance agents, got a hot meal, reconnected with friends.

June Jackson has been attending Mass at the church for 40 years, as long as she's lived in her home on Claremont Drive. On Friday morning, however, she needed solace more than ever.

"I'm a little nervous," she said as Mass ended and well-wishers streamed up to hug and inquire, "a little apprehensive. I can't remember phone numbers of people who are concerned about me.... I'd sure like to know if my house is still standing."

When the gas main blew Thursday night, Jackson was home alone. She heard the bang and went out to her back porch. "I saw the red and stuff falling down," she recalled. So she went out her front door and saw her neighbors gathered at the end of the block.

One persuaded her to get in his car. They drove to the top of her hilly street and watched until the neighborhood was evacuated. What she saw, she said, terrified her: "All the red coming up, all the smoke coming up, all the billowing fire, the billowing and billowing. We thought it wouldn't quit. It didn't quit. We didn't know what was happening."

Jackson had left her house without her purse or medications. She spent the night at her son's friend's home. On Friday, she had no idea where nightfall would find her, although a steady stream of church friends hugged her as she sat on the hard pew and offered help and Andrey said there was a room with her name on it in the snug convent.

So Niederauer's prayers seemed particularly useful to the tired woman with the uncertain future: "We pray now today for all the people of San Bruno who have suffered most, and we pray … that we can do whatever we can do to reach out to them, to be present for them.... We are to be Christ reaching out to the Christ in others."

Said Jackson: "I've never been through anything like this in my life. Even when I lost my son and I lost my husband. But thank the dear Lord I have my other son and my health."

-- Maria L. LaGanga in San Bruno

Photo: American Red Cross workers coordinate relief efforts with a member of St. Robert's Catholic Church in San Bruno.

Credit: Ramin Rahimian / Reuters