A Church at the Center of Tragedy Reaching Out to Help Neighbors



Prayer shawls sent by another church after the September 9 San Bruno explosion rest on the communion table at Bethany Presbyterian Church. Prayer shawls are created by knitters who pray into the shawls as they knit. They are also prayed over by a group before giving the shawls to those needing comfort in times of stress.

When they heard the natural gas pipeline blast that rocked the Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood on September 9, the pastor and members of Bethany Presbyterian Church sprang into action, not knowing that soon they’d be at the forefront of caring for victims.

Since the explosion and resulting fires that killed seven people, injured dozens more and destroyed 37 homes, the church and its national denomination have become emotional and spiritual caregivers to the community. They plan on offering support to the community for more than a year, as residents try to rebuild their homes and lives.

For Bethany, the tragedy became very personal when it was discovered that three of the seven killed – three generations of one family – were long-time members of the church.

The small church, only a half-mile away from where the pipeline exploded, was packed on the first Sunday after the tragedy, less than three days later. The congregation 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 – but now declared deceased – were Sue’s husband, Greg Bullis, 50, their son William, 17, and Greg’s mother, Lavonne, 85.

At worship one week later, congregation members continued to support 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.

Church Family Members Hear the Explosion

Some in that extended “family” were at the church on Thursday, September 9, just after 6 p.m., when they heard the explosion.

“We didn’t know what it was; we thought maybe it was a plane,” Interim Pastor Don Smith said. The church sits perched on a hill overlooking San Francisco International Airport, less than 10 miles from the area.

From the direction of the noise, they knew there might be congregation members who were affected, and they begin calling those members. Smith could not reach the Bullis home, but he was able to reach Sue Bullis, who was at work as a nurse. After a lot of frantic calls and searching it became clear that Greg, William and Lavonne were missing.

A Call for Help

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, officials from the Presbytery of San Francisco, a regional governing body for the church, contacted national headquarters of the PDA, asking for help.

“We actually arrived before some of the houses were cooled off enough to search,” said Rick Turner, of the PDA. Turner, from South Carolina, and fellow team member Suzanne Malloy, from Southern California, arrived Saturday morning. The two volunteers met with church members and let local authorities know they were prepared to help.

The PDA is a mostly volunteer organization of the Presbyterian Church (USA) funded by donations from churches and individuals. Teams respond to events from church fires all the way up to nationally declared disasters. The main goals of the organization are to complement, not duplicate, efforts already underway through governmental and volunteer agencies, according to Turner and Malloy. 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 to extend help as the community rebuilds.

Emotional and Spiritual Support

While PDA can supply resources such as monies, supplies, and volunteers, teams can also be called on to be the emotional and spiritual support for communities. In San Bruno, other agencies handling immediate physical needs and have asked PDA to specifically focus on those less tangible, but necessary, 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. The pastor of a larger nearby church, First Presbyterian of Burlingame, offered to host the September 24 memorial.

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

The overall community response has been remarkable, with numerous agencies, organizations and other church denominations coming together to help residents. Turner and Malloy said they could see that at a community meeting on their first day in San Bruno.

“It was amazing watching everybody working together,” Turner said.

To help, go to the Bethany Presbyterian website for more information.


  1. […] of the one year anniversary of the PG&E gas pipe explosion in San Bruno, I’m reposting this story I did about a faith community deeply impacted by the blast that turned around to help the community. Earlier today I read on the Fred Rogers Company website a […]

  2. […] Members of Bethany Presbyterian and the Presbyterian Church USA were some of the first to reach out to help the San Bruno community immediately after the blast. See our September 2010 story about their efforts. […]