And to Think That I Saw It on El Camino

Those of you who know me know that I just love to read. As a kid I naturally read a lot of Dr. Seuss, including And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. It was a delightful  story about a young boy named Marco who, after taking a rather ordinary walk down Mulberry Street, instead used his fertile imagination to turn it into an outlandish parade. Last Friday I experienced something along those lines, but in reverse. What I wanted was a simple walk with a single destination: the site of the now closed Chevy’s Fresh Mex restaurant, on El Camino near the Atherton border. What I got, however, was anything but. The things I saw rivaled the products of Marco’s imagination, but in my case they were real. And, unfortunately, not as fun as what Marco imagined.

There have been “for lease” signs on the Chevy’s building for some time, but not any signs of activity. The last time I drove by, however, I noticed that someone seemed to be doing some work on the building. Wanting to know if the building’s owner was trying to make the building more attractive to a potential lessee, or whether someone had indeed leased it and was getting it ready for occupancy, I concluded that an in-person visit was in order.

From my house, the simplest way to get to Chevy’s is to walk to El Camino and turn south. I don’t do simple, though. Instead, I went towards and then hooked around the main library, finding myself on Main. Enticed by the quaint architecture of the old San Jose Obrero church (on Heller, near Main; see the picture, below), I realized I had never actually been all the way down Heller, a residential street which is all of about eight blocks long. Coupled with a memory of a way to sneak beneath Woodside Road (other than at El Camino), I elected to follow Heller down to Chestnut and then jog over two blocks to Shasta, which does indeed dive beneath Woodside to emerge near Target.

San Jose Obrero Catholic church

Walking down Shasta I found myself facing the Woodside Road overpass. Something seemed odd, but it wasn’t until I was within a block of Woodside that I was able to put a finger on what it was: I wasn’t seeing or hearing any traffic up there. That struck me as very strange: Woodside Road is very busy, and at that hour (around 2:00pm on a Friday afternoon) there should be plenty of traffic in both directions. Shasta runs alongside the Caltrain tracks; from Shasta there is a pedestrian overpass that climbs up to the level of Woodside Road and then, once over the tracks, drops back down to ground level. To indulge my curiosity I headed up the overpass until I reached the high point, which turned out to be about six feet below the level of Woodside Road. Fortunately, there was a fence and guardrail that I was able to climb up on to give me a clear view of the roadway. And here is what I saw:

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Nothing. No cars going in either direction. Looking left, towards the bay, I could see traffic lined up all the way to the freeway, but being stopped at Middlefield. I could see that the road had been blocked off with traffic cones and police cars, and uniformed officers were directing traffic to either turn on Middlefield or make a U-turn and head back towards 101. Apparently they were doing the same thing on the west side of El Camino, as there was no traffic of any kind on Woodside Road crossing over El Camino.

Really curious now, I did a quick Internet search and found a reference to a fire on El Camino at the Woodside Road overcrossing. Of course now I just had to know what was really going on, so I headed back down the pedestrian overpass and resumed my journey on Shasta. After passing beneath Woodside Road I stayed on Shasta until I reached Laurel—which is the first street that goes all the way through to El Camino on the south side of Woodside—and turned west towards El Camino. From two blocks away I could see orange cones blocking off the El Camino end of the street. Just as I got to within one block of El Camino, however, a cop drove up and proceeded to block off the street. Not wanting to cause any trouble, I turned and walked two blocks south to the Target parking lot, on Charter St. I then turned right and walked the one block towards El Camino, noting that not only was Charter closed off at El Camino with traffic cones, but so was the entire Target parking lot. El Camino was empty, and the Target parking lot was nearly empty as well. Looking to my left I could see that cars on El Camino were being turned around at the intersection just south of the Target shopping center, and that El Camino was otherwise as quiet as Woodside Road had been.

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Once I actually reached El Camino I was finally able to see some of the commotion going on near the El Camino/Woodside Road intersection. As it turns out, the problem wasn’t under the overpass, as I had supposed (I was thinking perhaps that there was a vehicle fire under the overpass). Instead, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles were clustered around the U-Haul establishment on El Camino just to the south of Woodside Road. A bit later I worked up the courage to just walk right down El Camino (on the opposite side of the road from U-Haul; I wasn’t crazy!) in order to see just what was going on.

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[click the photo to enlarge]

Curiously, it wasn’t until a couple of days later that I finally found an article that explained just what had happened. Here is what the Redwood City-Woodside Patch said of the incident:

On Friday morning, fire crews from Redwood City, Menlo Park and Woodside sprayed water for several hours on a 1,000-gallon propane silo that had been burning and leaking propane gas. The small, personal-use propane tank exploded and had threatened the larger tank at the U-Haul facility on El Camino Real.

Fire officials say an employee was apparently filling the smaller tank when the incident occurred.

In the photo above, the propane tank is tall, white, and slender; you can see that it is being hosed down from at least two or three different angles simultaneously. Just from watching I figured out that there was an issue with the propane tank, but until I read the article I hadn’t realized what had triggered the rather impressive response.

Although the incident wasn’t right under the overpass, the damage that could have been caused by a thousand gallons of propane exploding did seem to warrant the closure of both El Camino and Woodside Road. But I couldn’t believe the traffic nightmares that this appeared to be causing. I felt terrible for all those people who were stuck in traffic, creeping forward at a snails pace, who were going to get to the front of the line only to be turned around and sent back the way they came.

I watched the fire trucks dousing the propane tanks for a couple of minutes, but it quickly became apparent that I wasn’t going to see much else. Thus, I elected to resume my original mission and headed south on El Camino to where the old Chevy’s building still stands empty. Empty, but being transformed: the old marquee sign on the corner now simply said “Leased” and there was active construction going on:

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Due to this being an active work zone, I couldn’t get too close, but I walked along the sidewalk and peered at the front doors in an unsuccessful attempt to get some idea of who was taking over the building. It could be anything: a restaurant, retail, or even a small office of some kind. Fortunately, they don’t seem to be tearing the building down, so it probably won’t turn into one of the multi-story office buildings of the type that seem to be springing up along El Camino just south of this spot.

Walking along the sidewalk adjacent to the building, I noticed yet another commotion down the road, at the intersection of El Camino and Selby Lane. As you might guess, I just had to see what was up, so I walked down the block to the intersection. From across El Camino I could see a red sedan facing the wrong way on Selby, nosed into the side of a white van that looked as if it had been preparing to make a right turn onto El Camino. No emergency vehicles were there yet—I supposed that they were all busy down the street, either dealing with the propane tank or working to mange the thousands of cars that were trying to get to and through the El Camino/Woodside Road intersection. At the accident scene one guy was yanking mightily on the drivers door of the red sedan, rocking the car in an attempt to get it open. But otherwise, except for the additional headaches that this new incident was causing, people seemed calm. I watched for a while, and finally emergency responders did show up. The fire department parked a hook-and-ladder truck right in front of the incident, blocking my view, but not before an ambulance pulled up and unloaded a gurney. It seems that the red sedan had been broadsided by a car heading south on El Camino and was pushed into the van. I later read that the passenger in the red sedan was taken to Stanford, where he subsequently died. The article didn’t say, but I have to wonder if the red sedan had been either turning left or making a U turn in an effort to escape the traffic snarl caused by the overheating propane tank. Certainly, the proximity of the two incidents gives me reason to think that they were related.

With nothing more to see of the accident, and having determined all I could for now at the Chevy’s, I headed back up El Camino towards home. I kept on the opposite side of the street as I passed the U-Haul; although cars weren’t allowed, the police didn’t seem to have any objections to pedestrians.

As I neared Sequoia High School, I remembered that I wanted to check out the former rental home of a friend of mine and see if there was any activity. The house was in tired shape, and after she had moved out I figured that it was only a matter of time before the landlord would spruce the place up (or perhaps even bulldoze and rebuild). Passing the house would require a detour up James St., so I turned left at James and walked up alongside Sequoia High, passing students on the sidewalk and pausing at the various driveways to allow cars to enter and exit the school parking lots.

I had gotten to the Sequoia High School District offices when I heard the squeal of tires behind me. I was about to dismiss the noise as just some high school kid showing off, when the squeal ended with a loud “bang.” That got my attention, so I turned around and walked back to Clinton, where I could see that a tan sedan had rear-ended a car parked near the corner on Clinton. As I approached, doors on either side of the car sprang open and two boys jumped out, one from each side of the car. The boys shut the doors behind them and then quickly walked off in opposite directions, without looking back. Next, the car backed up, shifted into drive, and roared off down Clinton. Fortunately, no one was in the parked car: I could see that the drivers-side rear corner was completely smashed in. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to pull out my camera and get a photo of the offending driver’s license plate: I was so shocked that he was leaving the scene of the crime that he was gone before I thought to do so. Also unfortunately, because I was facing the wrong way at the time I didn’t witness the actual event, just the aftermath. I suspect, however, that the car was driven by a Sequoia High student who had decided to show off by peeling out after exiting the school grounds, and who subsequently lost control of his car. Thank heavens no one seems to have been hurt. And hopefully there were better witnesses and enough evidence to enable the police to catch the driver.

By now, the whole walk was taking on a rather surreal tone. So naturally as I resumed walking up James I wasn’t surprised to see a fire truck approaching. He slowed at Duane as if looking for an intersection, and I figured he was looking for the hit-and-run. I was about to point him down the block, when he turned into the school district office driveway and a couple of EMTs jumped out. Apparently, someone was having a medical issue inside!

By this point, I was no longer curious: I just wanted to head back home and get safely indoors. I still had to walk, though, so I did go home via my friend’s former home. While the house wasn’t undergoing a major remodel, there was some work going on on one side of the house, and a couple of windows were in the process of being replaced, so that’s something. I’ll have to continue to keep an eye on that one.

What are the odds that I would see four separate incidents on a single walk like this? Just think of all that I would have missed if I had simply chosen a goal in a different direction, or had elected to take my walk a couple of hours earlier in the day. I would have missed all this excitement. Like Marco, when I was young I might have enjoyed all the commotion, but nowadays one incident would have been plenty for me. These days, I’m quite satisfied to get my excitement from authors like Dr. Seuss.

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