In Devastated Neighborhood, 'Nobody Wants To Come Back'
May. 27, 1989
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) _ Dudley Brewster and his family are refugees from a disaster they were told would never happen.
They had been assured by officials that a devastating train wreck in their modest suburban neighborhood on May 12 posed no risk to a 14-inch gasoline pipeline buried near the tracks.
The pipe had been inspected. The trains would roll again. Everything was safe.
Then, Thursday morning, as Brewster took a morning walk, the familiar rumble of a freight train was followed by an unusual sight: a geyser of gasoline spraying dozens of feet into the air.
Suddenly, a thunderous explosion rocked the neighborhood and flames engulfed everything. Brewster woke his wife and two sons, ages 6 and 12, and tried to get to his truck in the garage, but the flames beat them back. They blindly ran into the street and sprinted to safety several blocks away.
The blast killed two people, injured 31 and destroyed 10 homes. It was less than two weeks after a runaway train plowed through homes across the street, killing four people.
Among the burned homes was the one rented by the Brewsters.
''All I've got left is a set of keys that don't go to anything,'' Brewster said.
He is not alone in his loss, nor in his bitterness and fear. The disasters have sent waves of anger, apprehension and uncertainty through this blue- collar neighborhood of modern, ranch-style homes, many of them only a few feet away from the train tracks.
Counselors who were summoned to the neighborhood found adults and children alike who spoke as if they had just left a combat zone. Mental health workers said they expect many people to suffer the same long-term problems that afflict war veterans.
And everywhere - in hospitals, rescue shelters and hotel rooms - people expressed a strong fear of returning to the old neighborhood, certain that any assurances that the area is safe are nothing but lies.
''They don't want to come back. Nobody wants to come back,'' said San Bernardino City Councilwoman Valerie Pope-Ludlam.
Cita Wilson, 18, was sleeping Thursday morning when she felt the rumble of what she assumed was a passing train, a sensation that still jangled nerves among those who lived by the tracks.
This time, she rolled over to go back to sleep, but was pulled out of her slumber again by the shouts of her neighbor.
''It felt like an earthquake,'' said Ms. Wilson, who leaped for the door. ''The whole neighborhood was orange and red. That's all I saw. I just went outside and ran. I ran north. I just kept running.''
Ms. Wilson was unharmed and her home escaped damage, but like many people, she doesn't want to go back to a neighborhood she hardly recognizes anymore.
Duffy Street, in the heart of the damaged area, resembles an eerie black moonscape covered with gutted cars, charred trees, blackened telephone poles and the skeletons of homes. At one house, all that remains of a garage is a small piece of wood holding a padlock; at another home, what once was a swimming pool is now a black pit.
''When the train fell off the track, I was there by myself,'' Ms. Wilson said. ''When the explosion happened, I was there by myself. And now I'm afraid to be by myself.''
Counselors who have spoken to dozens of residents said Ms. Wilson's feelings are common.
The train derailment alone had frightened many people out of returning to the neighborhood, and many were skeptical of official assurances that the pipeline near the tracks would not be threatened by the resumption of rail traffic. About 100 residents even hired an attorney who says he found evidence that the area was unsafe.
With the second disaster, the fear of going home is overwhelming for many people, said clinical psychologist Patricia Haire, a Roman Catholic nun who met many residents at an evacuation center.
Mental health workers are paying special attention to children. At Muscoy Elementary School, a memorial service for two students killed in the train derailment was postponed Friday. Counselors came to classrooms, asking students to write down their feelings and share their thoughts with friends and family.
''The trauma will stay with people for some time,'' said Red Cross psychologist Sandra Smith. ''Especially with the children, it may pop up later down the line. They could be skittish about an earthquake, or any other thing like that. It could even pop up in some nervousness in relationships.
''It really is post traumatic stress syndrome, the same thing you hear about all the time with Vietnam veterans.''
For some, the anger and bitterness have overwhelmed any ties they may feel to the neighborhood.
''All these people were saying it was safe to go back after the train accident,'' Brewster said. ''Now the Red Cross says it's got another place for me a few blocks away. I said, 'Uh-uh. No way. We're never going back.'''