Now that I live on the East Coast, when someone asks where I'm from I usually say, "San Francisco." This is primarily because I was born there and it's a place everyone knows, but it's not an accurate response. The place where I'm from means far more to me than even that jewel of a city to the north. I am the proud product of San Bruno, California.
My parents moved there when I was 18 months old, to a house in the Crestmoor subdivision, where kids played touch football in the streets with confidence that approaching drivers would politely slow down to let us complete a play before passing. On Thursday night, I watched from my laptop back in Arlington, Va., as a swath of my neighborhood just a quarter mile from where my parents still live was obliterated in a gas-fueled fireball.
I was to leave early the next morning to fly home with my four-year-old daughter so she could spend some quality time with her Grandma and Poppi and cousins who still live in the area. I treasure the times when my little Maryann can experience the simple joy that I was blessed with growing up in such a fantastic community -- climbing the monkey bars at Crestmoor Elementary, hiking through the eucalyptus groves in Crestmoor Canyon (and learning the hard way how to identify poison oak), and getting to know the melting pot of neighbors who call San Bruno -- and specifically the Crestmoor area -- home.
Even in the '60s and '70s, this was a multi-ethnic neighborhood. Among my friends, we had kids whose parents were from Mexico, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Samoa, Tonga, Holland, Japan, and the Philippines. Riding my Sting-Ray home for dinner each night took me through a United Nations of delectable scents emanating from houses on my block, guaranteeing a powerful hunger by the time I got home to my mother's chicken and mushrooms or my Italian grandmother's gnocchi, tagliarini or polenta.
I arrived at San Francisco International Airport on Friday morning, the day after the fire, expecting the worst. I was certain that, in a blaze that violent and sudden -- striking as it did during the dinner hour -- there would be dozens of fatalities. Before leaving for the airport that morning, I threw a dark suit into my suitcase in anticipation of what I was sure would be many funerals at St. Roberts -- the Catholic parish where I went to school and where many of the residents of the affected area are parishioners.
Tragically, at least six of my fellow San Brunans perished in the fire and still more are in serious or critical condition at hospitals in the area, but the fact that these numbers are not heart-wrenchingly higher is a testament to the phenomenal men and women of the San Bruno Fire Department and their partners from nearby agencies.
No praise can be too high for the brave heroes of the FDNY who charged into the World Trade Towers on September 11, but I can sleep well at night knowing that my parents, family and friends are protected by the equally awe-inspiring SBFD.
It boggles the mind that the inferno we all witnessed did not claim more lives. Early in the blaze, when a local news anchor wondered why there wasn't more water being poured on the flames (we'd find out later that the water mains burst in the explosion), a fire official gave him this response: Our first mission is to make sure residents are safe.
My connection to San Bruno is deep. While I haven't lived there in 25 years, I spend considerable time every year in the modest tract home where I was raised, watching Giants and 49ers games on the television in my parent's kitchen. When I was 19 years old, I ran for a seat on the San Bruno City Council. Maybe it's a testament to the wisdom of my neighbors that I was not elected, but the proudest moment in my quixotic quest was receiving the support of our local firefighters and police officers. Over the course of that long-ago campaign, I got to know these men and women well. The few from back then who still serve are now the leaders of the SBFD and SBPD, and I can attest that a finer and more dedicated group of human beings does not exist on this earth.
There are fancier places to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are certainly warmer and less windy cities. There are quaint towns with views of the Pacific Ocean and locales where you can live in a mansion instead of a tract home. But if your priorities are more people-centered, if you want to live in a town where public officials care about the residents they serve, where volunteer Little League coaches pour their heart and soul into their kids, where teachers are able to afford a home in the community where they work, and where your lives and loved ones are protected by the finest men and women in uniform anywhere, you're going to want to take a long look at my home town -- San Bruno, California.