Fire fully contained after massive blast in Calif. neighborhood that killed at least 4

By Terence Chea, AP
Friday, September 10, 2010

Fire fully contained after deadly California blast

SAN BRUNO, Calif. — Fire crews have fully contained the blaze ignited after a gas line ruptured and a massive fireball engulfed a Northern California neighborhood.

Four people have been confirmed dead in the Thursday night blast. Authorities still need to search about a quarter of the homes in the affected area of San Bruno.

Fire Chief Dennis Haag says some parts are still too hot to search. Homes continued to smolder Friday afternoon.

Police have cordoned off the burn areas, saying they’re treating it like a crime scene until investigators can determine a cause of the explosion.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

SAN BRUNO, Calif. (AP) — Fire crews tried to douse the remnants of an enormous blaze and account for the residents of dozens of homes Friday after a gas line ruptured and an explosion ripped through in a neighborhood near San Francisco, killing at least four people.

Crews with dogs went house to house in the neighborhood near San Francisco and officials said there could be more casualties from the Thursday evening blast. Homes were left with just chimneys standing and smoke still rose from blocks of smoldering wreckage. San Bruno Fire Chief Dennis Haag said Friday afternoon a quarter of the homes are still too hot to search.

“It was pretty devastating,” Haag said. “It looks like a moonscape in some areas.”

Eight investigators were on scene Friday, working to determine the cause of the explosion. Police are blocking people from approaching the burn area.

“Until we can determine what caused that, we are protecting that like a crime scene, looking for evidentiary value items,” said San Bruno Police Chief Neil Telford.

One man was arrested Thursday night on suspicion of looting and assaulting an officer, Telford said.

At least 50 people were hurt, with eight in critical condition at area hospitals. The explosion that left a giant crater and sent flames tearing through the middle-class neighborhood of 1960s-era homes in hills overlooking San Francisco, the bay and the airport. Haag said he didn’t know of anyone confirmed missing, though officials were still waiting for all residents to check in.

Christina Veraflor, 41, of Napa, grew up in the neighborhood and said Friday morning that her 67-year-old mother’s house was destroyed. Her mother, who had lived in the home for 40 years, was at the movies when the neighborhood erupted in flames.

“I woke up this morning and said, ‘I’ll go to my mom’s and get this and get that.’ But there is no mom’s anymore,” Veraflor said.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. President Chris Johns said Friday morning a steel gas pipe ruptured about three feet underground just before 6:30 p.m Thursday, but crews still haven’t been able to determine the cause of the rupture or the ensuing blast because they can’t get close enough.

Haag said Friday afternoon they’re still not able to access the site of the ruptured gas line because it’s covered with water.

The damaged section was isolated and gas flow to the area has been stopped. The blaze was 75 percent contained by midmorning, fire officials said.

Veraflor said she smelled gas at the house during a visit six weeks ago but did not report the smell to the utility.

“You’d get a whiff of it, and it would dissipate,” she said.

Johns said the company has heard the reports that some residents smelled gas in the area before the blast.

“Right now, we haven’t got confirmation about that, but we have records that we are going back right this minute to try to confirm what exactly those phone calls look like and when they occurred, and we will report back as soon as we know something.”

After the initial blast, flames reached as high as 100 feet as the fire fueled itself on burning homes, leaving some in total ruins and reducing parked automobiles to burned out hulks.

“It was a continuous whooshing sound as if it was a fed fire,” resident Michael Yost said. “It sounded like, you know, you would if you had a blow torch. It’s that sound but, you know, a hundred times louder.”

The mood was apprehensive at the evacuation center Friday, where several dozens of people came to get information and services.

Carlene Vasquez did not know what happened to her house and was anxiously waiting for news when her son came up and showed her a picture of her house, still standing, on his mobile phone.

“Oh my house,” she said, crying. “That’s my house.”

Four firefighters suffered minor smoke inhalation injuries and were treated and quickly released, Haag said.

Haag said crews walked through the neighborhood Friday morning and revised the damage estimate to 38 structures destroyed and seven significantly damaged. Dozens of other homes suffered less severe damage in the fire, which burned 15 acres.

It’s not the first time a deadly explosion on a PG&E gas line has devastated a Northern California neighborhood.

On Christmas Eve 2008 an explosion killed a 72-year-old man in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova, destroyed one home and seriously damaged others.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s final report said PG&E used a wrong pipe to repair the gas line two years before the explosion. Rancho Cordova residents had reported of a gas smell in the area before the blast.

In response to the NTSB’s findings, the company said it had taken “extraordinary measures” to ensure a blast like that would never happen again.

The NTSB has sent a four-member team to San Bruno to investigate Thursday’s blast.

The pipeline involved in the accident is under the jurisdiction of the California Public Utility Commission. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said an official from his department would be on the scene “to make sure things are being done correctly.”

“We are going to take 24/7 oversight to make sure everything is done correctly, LaHood told reporters in Washington.

However, LaHood added: “The responsibility for this falls under the state of California.”

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency, investigates pipeline accidents. The Transportation Department, which includes the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, regulates pipeline safety.

Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, acting governor while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in Asia on a trade mission, declared a state of emergency in San Mateo County. He said PG&E had committed to providing temporary housing, food, clothing and other essential needs of the victims.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration made disaster relief funds available to cover 75 percent of the cost of fighting the San Bruno blaze. The money covers equipment, supplies and emergency work such as evacuations, shelter and traffic control.

Stephanie Mullen, Associated Press news editor for photos based in San Francisco, was attending children’s soccer practice with her two children and husband at Crestmoor High School when she saw the blast.

“First, it was a low deep roar and everybody looked up, and we all knew something big was happening,” she said. “Then there was a huge explosion with a ball of fire that went up behind the high school several thousand feet into the sky.

“Everybody grabbed their children and ran and put their children in their cars,” Mullen said. “It was very clear something awful had happened.”

Several minutes later, Mullen was near the fire scene, about a half-mile away. She said she could feel the heat of the fire on her face although she was three or four blocks away from the blaze. It appeared the fireball was big enough to have engulfed at least several homes.

“I could see families in the backyards of the homes next to where the fire was, bundling their children and trying to get them out of the backyards,” she said.

She said people in the neighborhood were yelling, “This is awful” and “My family is down there.”

Contributing to this report were Associated Press Writer Sudhin Thanawala and video journalist Haven Daley in San Bruno and Marcus Wohlsen, John S. Marshall and Jason Dearen in San Francisco, and Joan Lowy in Washington.

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