Remembering the San Bruno Fire

The evening of Sept. 9, 2010, was supposed to be like every other night, with all the usual routines, in our family’s household. My husband, Kevin ’96, and I come home from work, we eat dinner, and we play with our two children, Jaden, 5, and Kalea, 2, until the kids’ bedtime. But this night was anything but typical.

At 6:15 p.m., a natural gas line exploded in our neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif.

I was driving home from work on the freeway when I saw bright orange flames shoot into the sky. From afar, I wasn’t terribly alarmed: It did not look like the fire was in my neighborhood. I had no idea the lives of my husband and children were in danger.

I called Kevin at home, but my calls kept going to our voicemail. That’s when I first began to panic: The phone lines were dead. When I called Kevin’s cell phone, he answered. I told him I would pick them up, but he shouted, “No! Do not come here!” Then, in the background, I heard a neighbor’s voice say, “Tell her to meet us at the mall.” That’s when I knew the fire was serious. The fire was in my neighborhood.

I arrived first at the nearby mall. When my family got there, I could see the look of shock on their faces. I could barely speak when I saw our daughter’s forehead dripping with blood, staining her turtleneck. Kevin had heard a large explosion that shook the house, and he immediately grabbed the kids. As they ran from the house, Kevin accidentally banged Kalea’s head on the door. We drove to the emergency room.

As word of the San Bruno fire spread, our cell phones began ringing with calls from friends and family who wanted to be sure we were alive. The next morning, I posted an update on my Facebook page to tell our friends we were not sure if our house survived and that we needed help badly.

The fire, we soon learned, was truly awful. It killed eight of our neighbors and left dozens of homes destroyed or damaged. Fortunately, the fire missed our home, but many of our belongings were damaged by smoke, and we were forced to throw them away. We decided to move and start over because we were traumatized. Jaden and Kalea were frightened another fire would happen without any warning.

For the next month, family and friends — even elementary school classmates I had not seen in 20 years — dropped off clothes, toys, diapers, gift cards and money for us. We received checks from complete strangers. An unknown woman from Chicago mailed seven boxes of clothes.

Jaden, sadly, lost one of his favorite possessions in the fire: his business card collection. Some media reporters mentioned the boy who lost an unusual collection in the fire, and Kenn Lipke, a complete stranger, started Project Business Card. He collected business cards from all over the world. A few months later, at a neighborhood gathering of fire survivors, Kenn presented Jaden with cards he received — 15,000! Kenn said the happy look on Jaden’s face made his hard work worth it.

2010 is the year when I learned that you do not need to know someone to help someone. Not a day goes by when I do not think about the lessons that changed my outlook on life forever. I know now that there is still good in the world and people do care.

Michele (Tengco) Ashley lives with her husband and children in South San Francisco, Calif. She is an assistant vice president of communications at Wells Fargo Bank.