Sunday, September 12, 2010

After the San Bruno Explosion, What are You Scared Of?

Thursday night, a giant explosion ripped through a neighborhood in San Bruno, California.  The blast and subsequent fire, apparently caused by a ruptured gas line, leveled 38 homes and killed at least 7 people.  Six more are missing. 

I don't know about you, but if you gave me an hour to list all the horrendous things that could happen to me I could come up with a pretty long list, but I doubt a gas explosion destroying my neighborhood would be on it.  It certainly wouldn't be on the top.  We all know, in the back of our minds, that there are certain things that could happen to us -- car accidents, homicide, natural disasters (different ones, depending on where you live) -- but there are other things that just don't make the list because they are so rare we don't know about them.  Gas leaks?  Sure.  Gas explosions?  Maybe.  The entire neighborhood detonating?  Not so much.

I'm not sure whether that makes the typical person's reaction to this better or worse, but it does make it different.  When we hear about, say, a horrible car accident that killed multiple people, it may make us more afraid to drive.  We may lose our own sense of safety on the road.  We may imagine what it would be like to be a family member getting that call, or to be on the road and witness or be involved in the crash.

Our reaction when something so bizarre happens is a little bit different.  Yes, we probably are more sensitive to the smell of gas or more careful not to leave the stove on.  We probably don't spend a lot of time imagining what it would be like to be in the incident itself, largely because we just can't.  Even once it's happened somewhere, our minds can't yet process fully how such an event would play out.

The most important difference is the quality and amount of fear we may feel.  When we hear about a car accident, if we feel afraid we feel afraid when we drive, or when our loved ones drive.  The fear is specific to the incident.  An extraordinary incident like the San Bruno explosion, however, can cause two different kinds of reactions:  either it seems so unlikely that even though it's happened it doesn't seem possible, or it seems so random that the entire world seems less safe.  Our fears, if we have them, are not specific to gas lines or even to sitting in our homes.  They are about something completely random coming out of nowhere and hurting us.  We don't react to the sudden discovery that a specific situation is not safe, we react to the discovery that the world is not safe.

Most of us experienced this kind of reaction nine years ago, after the 9-11 attacks.  The fear we felt and the reactions we had were not necessarily about flying or working in an office building or even about the type of person we presumed to be the terrorists.  It was fundamentally about the notion that a day could start as normally as that day did, and turn into such a nightmare without warning.  Our worldview was violated not because we used to think flying was safe and now it wasn't, but because we used to think that life was safe and we found out maybe we were wrong.  The people of San Bruno found that out again this week, and in some small way, so did the rest of us.


Abraham Fisher said...

I have heard it said that 9/11 was the day when the people of the US rejoined world history, in the sense that we stopped being disconnected from the rest of the world. Even with our participation in the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and countless expeditions to places that too many of us can neither spell nor find on the map, it was all still "out there." With 9/11, "out there" became "here," which is I think what you are saying was so shattering about it.

I have to think that the San Bruno explosion, maybe because it was essentially random (and certainly not intentionally perpetrated by human action) and on a far smaller scale than 9/11, will stay with us for a much shorter time. I suppose that's because we'd all much rather have our world views stay stable, so we tend to push contrary data out, but it's also because in some larger sense, we really do live fairly safe lives.

Colleen said...

Worried about gas leaks? Um, YES!

A couple of years ago, a house in the next town over EXPLODED! IIRC, Mom was outside, teenaged son walked out to tell her something (leaving house empty) and it exploded right behind him! No one was hurt.

That street was closed for *ages* while they repaired lines and such. As I drive around the area, there are many places which often smell like gas. There are many known, small leaks, which they simply are not fixing!

I believe that the explosion was caused by putting the wrong equipment going to the house (too much pressure through the pipe), something like that, it was something amazingly stupid. It was just amazing good luck that no one was hurt.

My friend got a new heating system put in...she *had* been considering getting gas run to her house. She got a new oil system.

I don't trust the gas company AT ALL anymore. I'm always aware of gas smells, and call to report the odor fairly frequently. At least there is something I feel that I can do, that is constructive.

But, if you ask me what sort of disaster might happen? My house blowing up because of a gas leak is right up there.

Alan said...

I was concerned enough to search for similar pipelines running under my neighborhood (closest is on US 12) and ran into a mutual Facebook friend:

Ed's post includes the link to the National Pipeline Mapping System.

I'm very concerned about all sorts of infrastructure failing -- bridges and overpasses, dams, water and sewer systems, air traffic control systems -- which our nation and states have not been deferring maintenance on for decades. I'm fairly certain there is a higher probability of one of those things killing me than a crazy person with a weapon.

Squid said...

I gassed up across the street from that neighborhood every week for the last three years, as my son went to school a few blocks away (he's at a different school this year). It's one of the windiest places in the Bay Area. And I still can't believe this has happened.

A helpful action PG&E has taken is to publish a list of all the scheduled-for-repair pipeline sections in the region, which both helps residents (this resident, anyhow) with specific rather than vague geographies on which to focus our concerns, and a sense that PG&E is taking action.

Also, Naomi, do you know about Crisis Camp in DC?

Hope you are well.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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