Volunteers near and far help San Bruno

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(Katherine Ramirez)

Local community and shopping centers were transformed into evacuation sites and shelters Thursday night to help victims of the San Bruno fire that broke out shortly after 6 p.m. Many volunteers responded quickly–some with organizations and others on their own accord. All volunteers answered the call for contributing time, money, and helpful hands the best way they could.  

BayhillShopping Center

Bayhill shopping center, home to grocery store Mollie Stone and CVS Pharmacy, turned into an evacuation site for victims of San Bruno fire on Thursday September 9, 2010.  

Bayhill quickly became the center for distributing goods, sending evacuees to shelters, and registering San Bruno residents as a precautionary head count. The shopping center also stationed Red Cross Volunteers and their disaster services truck.  

Public Information Officer of San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, Sean O’Donnell, who informed droves of media on the first night, recognized that the wreckage will take a while to be cleared. 

“After 21 years of law enforcement [the San Bruno fire] comes second to the Oakland Hills fire storm which I was at,” O’Donnell said.   

Business in the center and surrounding areas contributed to the effort of the first night and continued the days after. Starbucks, for example, stayed open past its normal closing time to offer coffee to volunteers and provide free Wifi as the fire burned on.   

Taylor Davis, an employee at the Bayhill Starbucks, relayed on Sunday that they have continued to stay open past their normal 10:30 p.m. closing time and shut down when it looks like everyone has left. And for the first night of the explosion, that wasn’t until 1:30 a.m.   

“We’ve donated a lot of coffee and we are doing the best we can to help out,” Davis said.   

Radio Shack, also in the Bayhill center, stayed open later than their normal closing time, selling cell phones and chargers to those who did not have time to grab theirs when evacuating.  

Individuals helped also, such as Marie Strane, a previous Skyline student trained in disaster management, who helped collect and organize donated electronics, food, and clothing.  

With cooperation from re-routed SamTrans buses these goods were loaded up and driven to the two designated shelters which included The Veteran’s Memorial Center and the Senior Center of San Bruno. 

“I try to solve situations,” Strane said after telling of an evacuated man who needed medication for his wife as he was unable to retrieve it from his closed off house. “I was able to direct him to Red Cross and he got the medication that he needed.”  

While some came to Bayhill to donate their time others came to donate their money such as The Yeolaisah Korean Buddhist temple who donated $500 that they collected from members during their Sunday service.   

By Monday, Bayhill was back normal with the only sign of activity from the fire days before being a handwritten sign taped to a recycling container saying: Red Cross Services at Veteran’s Memorial Center, 251 City Park Way.

The Veteran’s Memorial Center

The Veteran’s Memorial Center turned into a shelter after the San Bruno fire Thursday night. Beds and free food were provided for evacuees and volunteers alike.

Lunch time at the shelter the day after the San Bruno explosion was busy. Red Cross, insurance companies, and Ministry booths covered the lawns nearby. Sun shined on the surrounding park as many enjoyed free pizza and tacos in the courtyard and surrounding fields.

Police replacements from Redwood City could be seen grabbing a quick bite from Kung Fu Tacos mobile van which drove out from San Francisco’s Financial District. Owner of the taco stand, Tan Truong, said he was happy to do his part in helping the victims of the fire as he passed out a chicken taco topped with mango salsa. 

More food was served in the courtyard of the Center where Lions Club members from San Mateo, Millbrae, and Redwood City helped set up and serve donated pizzas, apples, chips, cookies, sodas, and other foods.

Josh Mooney-Capella of the Scientology Volunteer Ministry, was especially impressed with the outpour of food supplies gathered by the Lions Club and even more by a man who brought a truck load of food from Fresh Choice, paid for out of his own pocket.

“It seemed like everyone showed up with something,” he said.

The flurry of activity continued throughout the afternoon as individual volunteers helped store and organize the incoming donations, but simmered down, more with each new day.

By Wednesday, most of the booths were taken down and free food was no longer served outside, however, clothing donations lined the walkway leading to the Center’s backdoor. Over 50, overflowing storage boxes sat outside with writing on them: Woman’s dresses, Girl’s shoes, and Men’s extra large t-shirts.

Red Cross volunteer, Rich Mallonee, pointed to the overflowing donation boxes and said that he fully supported in-kind contributions, but saw that the victims of the San Bruno fire did not have much need for them.

“What they really need are new eyeglasses, medications, and identification cards,” he explained.

For the victims who still had some of their belongings, but were partially damaged, Graham Freser of Walnut Creek, offered help in the form of clothing repair for smoke damaged clothes. His service was profusely thanked after the repairing an old football varsity jacket.

“He was so happy, he said he wanted to kiss me,” Freser said.