In the days after a ruptured pipeline unleashed a deadly fireball on their neighborhood, the shaken residents of San Bruno listened to a simple, symbolic pledge from a PG&E executive at the first of many town hall meetings: "We will do everything we can to make you whole.—
"A year later, many of the survivors say PG&E has left them instead with broken promises and shattered lives."
"Some are still quibbling with the utility over a fair price for the incinerated homes where they had raised their kids and planned to retire. Others are hiring attorneys after waiting eight or nine months for the money they need to rebuild. Many are still paying mortgages on fire-scorched lots or borrowing money from friends to pay off builders and watching as insurance payments for rent run out."
""They're playing hardball," fire survivor Gene O'Neil said of PG&E. "They don't care if they make us whole.—
"The survivors have spent countless hours computing the losses, itemizing every fork
and bath mat or, in Jerry Guernsey's case, hundreds of collectible Hot Wheels and the '57 Chevy he restored with his own hands. Holding themselves together sometimes requires pills, for sleeping or keeping the anxiety down.
So much of the spotlight over the past year has focused on the PG&E pipe that ran between their houses -- and why it blew up. But as PG&E hunted for decades of
They are carrying the burden of what they lived through that night, when eight people were killed and 38 homes destroyed.
"We are not whole," said Diane Neilson, one of the two dozen trying to rebuild in San Bruno.
'Stomach in knots'
The plywood-covered frames of four new homes have emerged out of what had been empty lots for most of the year along Claremont and Glenview drives. But chain-link fences still surround several blocks of empty space that used to be filled with houses.
So far, 24 families are in some stage of rebuilding, including Bob and Nancy Hensel, who were the first to break ground in a triumphant ceremony in May complete with politicians' speeches and sparkling wine. The remaining 14 homeowners have taken buyouts from PG&E or are considering them. At least 24 of the families whose homes were destroyed have sued the utility, and about 70 others also impacted by the blast have filed lawsuits.
Some had endeavored to get through it all without an attorney, but then gave up trying to hold a company that reported $1.1 billion in profit last year accountable to replace their $575,000 to $700,000 houses.
"We aren't asking for pain and suffering (compensation)," said Neilson, whose insurance doesn't cover the cost of rebuilding the home on Concord Way her family has owned since 1962. "We just want the house back."
Updated building codes have driven up the price of rebuilding, she said, and PG&E has balked at the extra cost, saying the contractor's estimate is too high. After numerous polite meetings with PG&E representatives, the retired couple said they are always told someone will get back to them. Fed up, the Neilsons hired an attorney.
"Your stomach is in knots," Neilson said. "You keep waiting and nothing happens."
Four days after the blast, PG&E President Chris Johns announced a $100 million Rebuild San Bruno Fund; so far, the company has spent $33 million from that fund, including about $12 million on survivors. The company also offered no-strings attached $50,000 payouts to help with immediate needs for those who lost their homes and additional money to help make up for what insurance wouldn't cover.
With a fire engine as a backdrop, Johns spoke sensitively about "great resolve to make sure that we fulfill our commitment to the people of San Bruno." Repeating a pledge a company executive had made days earlier, he promised "to make folks whole" on losses their insurance wouldn't cover.
Many of the families received the $50,000 check for emergency needs, but some whose insurance wasn't enough are still waiting for the rest of the help.
Gene and Kris O'Neil just want a fair price for their house so they can move on with their lives.
Their twin daughters, 23-year-old Mary and Colleen, were burned as they ran for their lives with their mother. Colleen must wear a compression bandage on her arm for another year to prevent scarring, Gene O'Neil said.
Memories of the flames returned recently as Colleen watched a fiery scene in the latest "Harry Potter" film.
For Gene, 62, and Kris, 60, inching through the insurance process requires imagining a place that's no longer there. Mentally, they go back into the house, shelf by shelf, and remember what was on it, where they bought it, and how much it cost.
Last winter, Gene O'Neil came back stunned by what seemed like sincere goodwill during a meeting with PG&E about buying out his property. He said it seemed the utility was ready to take swift responsibility.
"They treated me like they burned my house down, killed my pets and hurt my kids," Gene O'Neil said.
But instead of getting a quick offer for his house and property, O'Neil said, all he got was more delays.
Today, the O'Neils are still haggling with the utility over the price for their home.
PG&E hired an appraiser to figure out each home's value just before the blast. Under the rules of PG&E's buyout program, homeowners who don't agree with the company's appraisal must pay for their own. Buyouts have ranged from $450,000 to $780,000, according to San Mateo County property records.
"They shouldn't say, 'We're going to make you whole,' '' O'Neil said. "What they mean is 'We are going to settle with you.' Their goal is to get out of this by giving you as little money as possible."
Until it's solved, the O'Neils can't make a decision on where they will live next.
A different view
When asked to respond to survivors' accusations that PG&E had not made them whole, utility spokesman David Eisenhauer said: "We're working hard with the people in that community," and added, "We're committed to doing what we can to help them out and we will continue to work with them."
Eisenhauer said the utility will bring in a mediator to try to settle disputes. In response to a written request from this newspaper, he said company representatives working with the families have been instructed to try to address survivors' concerns. And, he said, the company would pay for the O'Neils' appraisal.
There are survivors who say PG&E has kept its word and feel their insurance companies treated them fairly.
Two of them are Steve and Patty Blick. They're trading their lot on Claremont Drive and some cash for two parcels PG&E acquired through buyouts. The couple, who both work in the insurance business, had photos of their big-ticket items as well as receipts tucked away in a safe-deposit box at a bank.
The knowledge gleaned from their jobs and advice from friends in the industry have helped them navigate the claims process. They've had to work with the utility, but they don't feel they've been mistreated. Still, it has taken longer than they would have liked and they have had to be persistent.
"The big corporate entity -- that's not the people we dealt with," said Patty Blick, 50. "It's not their fault. They've been very gracious and kind."
'Want to move on'
But for every family like the Blicks, there are others with nothing good to say.
Carole and Jerry Guernsey have been struggling to settle their claim with PG&E for nearly eight months.
They'd rather start over somewhere new, far from the tragedy -- maybe San Mateo -- but say the buyout estimate from PG&E isn't enough to do that.
"I want to move on from this crap," said Jerry Guernsey, 67, who doesn't feel PG&E has made him whole. "If they had, they would have paid me for my stuff by now. As far as I am concerned, we are getting the runaround."
The couple is trying to get PG&E to follow through on its offer to pay for what insurance won't cover.
Monetary value -- the insurance company told the Guernseys that family photos are worth 25 cents apiece -- doesn't cover personal touches that were obliterated, like the marks on a door frame that tracked the height of their growing grandkids.
"I don't have that anymore," said Carole, 72. "It's gone."
Sukhdev Attal is worried what he could lose next: the money to cover his rent. The insurance company is paying it through October, and PG&E has pledged to pay three extra months while he rebuilds.
But his house won't be ready until spring, which means he could end up on the hook for his nearly $4,000 a month mortgage plus rent -- impossible on a cabdriver's pay.
The bank won't refinance his loan because there's no house left.
"Time is clicking, you know," he said. "I want to settle my life."
But he takes some solace in his taxi work; passengers have become his therapists. He tells them how he lost his home, how his family narrowly escaped and the trouble that has followed. They provide comfort, and share their own stories of loss.
"It's like a support group," he said. "You are not alone when you think about how there is worse. You realize, 'God saved me.' "
Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335.
Only about a third of PG&E's promised $100 million rebuild fund has been spent, with the biggest chunk going to governmental agencies.
$21 million: Doled out to the agencies. Of that, $12 million was put into a trust for San Bruno's fire-related expenses and the rest went primarily to paying police and firefighters, PG&E said.
$7 million: The next largest payout has gone to survivors' medical bills and insurance shortfalls.
$5 million: Spent on buyouts, help for homeowners who are rebuilding and neighborhood beautification projects.