Presbyterians rally behind San Bruno congregation

SF Presbytery, PDA, others help PC(USA) church cope with death, destruction caused by gas explosion

September 22, 2010

A firefighter standing on a fire truck with a hose amidst a firey blaze.

Firefighters battle the inferno created by a natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA, Sept. 9. Seven people died and 37 homes were destroyed by the blast. —Photo by Brent Ward, San Francisco Chronicle

SAN BRUNO, Calif.

A massive explosion from a failed natural gas pipeline blasted a large crater into the Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood here Sept. 9, killing seven people, injuring dozens more, and destroying 37 homes, but it did not shake the foundation of faith at Bethany Presbyterian Church.

Congregation members and others — including Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) workers — are surrounding a family that lost three members in the September 9 blast.

The small church, only a half-mile from the explosion, was packed on the first Sunday after the event, less than three days later. Past and present members of the congregation, community members, and a PDA team worshipped and surrounded Sue and Janine Bullis, the mother and daughter who were still waiting at that time for official confirmation of the fate of three family members. Missing were Sue’s husband, Greg Bullis, 50, their son William, 17, and Greg’s mother, Lavonne, 82.

Although the San Mateo County Coroner's office would not confirm the deaths of the three until DNA testing is complete — a process that could take weeks — the family announced last week that they have enough evidence to suggest that remains found at the site do belong to the three family members.

In addition to the PDA response, Pastor Don Smith said he has received an outpouring of offers of help from other presbyteries and churches around the country. The offers range from prayer, to sending prayer shawls, to sharing rebuilding expertise from a church in Southern California where members had experienced the loss of homes in a large wildfire just a few years earlier.

At worship on Sept. 19, congregation members continued to surround Sue and Janine, offering hugs and warm remembrances of Greg, "Willy", and Lavonne. Lavonne, described by one congregation member as "the grandma who never said 'no,'" had been a member for more than 40 years. Greg and Sue met at Bethany.

"We've always been a really close church," Janine Bullis said after the service. Sue Bullis was quick to add the word "family" to the description.

It was this extended family that sprang into action the moment the explosion occurred at around 6:15 p.m. on Thursday, September 9. Smith and others were at the church when they heard the noise. They immediately began calling congregation members they knew might be affected. Smith was able to reach Sue Bullis, who was at work as a nurse. It became clear quickly that Greg, William and Lavonne were missing.

Pastel-colored prayer shawls on a wooden communion table in a sanctuary of a church.

Two prayer shawls, sent by Pittsburgh Presbytery to Bethany Presbyterian Church for Sue and Janine Bullis, rest on the congregation’s communion table. Three members of the Bulliss family died in the natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno Sept. 9. Photo by Pam Marino

Smith and some members of the congregation began visiting local hospitals to see if the three could be found among the burn victims.  In the meantime, the executive presbyter of the Presbytery of San Francisco, the Rev. Cal Chinn, contacted PDA.

"We actually arrived before some of the houses were cooled off enough to search," said Rick Turner, a PDA disaster response team member from Greer, S.C. He and fellow PDA response team member Suzanne Malloy, from Santa Barbara, CA, arrived Saturday morning. They met with church members and let local authorities know they were prepared to help. Both are PDA volunteers, a mostly volunteer ministry funded by One Great Hour of Sharing offering.

The main goals of PDA are to complement, not duplicate, efforts already underway through governmental and volunteer agencies, they said. Another goal is provide support to a congregation and the surrounding community over a long period of time — sometimes a year or more

"It looks like our main responsibility (in San Bruno) is going to be emotional and spiritual care," Turner said. He and Malloy said they expect they and other PDA volunteers will be returning to San Bruno over the next year.

In San Bruno, other agencies such as the Red Cross are handling immediate physical needs and have asked PDA to specficially focus on emotional and spiritual needs.

For example, Turner and Malloy said that Red Cross officials asked them to help plan the memorial service for the Bullis family, not something they usually do after a disaster. But in this case, between 1,500 and 1,900 mourners are expected. Greg Bullis was a nurse and former Marine, William was a senior at Mills High School, and Lavonne was an active community member.

A larger nearby church, First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame, has offered to host the Sept. 24 memorial.

The PDA team also worked with Presbytery of San Francisco officials to find on-going pastoral support for Smith, who is an interim at Bethany, and the congregation. They turned to husband and wife pastors, the Revs. Jeff and Diana Cheifetz, who have both been interim pastors, and know Smith through the presbytery's interim pastors group.

"The response of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has really been remarkable," Smith said.

Turner and Malloy said responding to tragedies and disasters can be overwhelming, but they always see God at work in the situations.

"God's work to me is very clear, especially as we see the number of people who are pitching into help," Malloy said. "We can see things falling into place … when we're open to the leading of the Spirit, the Spirit guides us to the right place and the right people."

They saw that right away in San Bruno. At a community meeting they attended the day they arrived, neighbors, agencies and other denominations were coming together to help the victims.

"It was amazing watching everybody working together," Turner said.

Pam Marino is a communications professional and free-lance writer in Sunnyvale, Calif. She is a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.

  1. I am looking for information to give to my PEO group. We would like to donate directly to Sue so that we can help her build her life. Any info would be helpful

    by Lea Stivaletti

    December 15, 2010

  2. The response of PDA, our presbytery and surrounding churches has been amazing. And having Jeff and Diana Cheifetz on site to provide emotional and spiritual support really shows me that we're not alone in dealing with this tragedy. In the midst of our deep grief and sadness, with so much pain, God provides the hands to hold us up and the shoulders for us to cry on. I am so blessed to be a member of the Bethany church family.

    by Roberta Henry

    October 4, 2010

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