Neighborhood sits empty as crews seek 2 missing, search for cause of deadly gas line explosion

By Sudhin Thanawala, AP
Saturday, September 11, 2010

Homes empty as crews seek missing after CA blast

SAN BRUNO, Calif. — The scorched shells of suburban San Francisco homes sat empty Saturday as hundreds of people waited for investigators to let them return to the scene of a deadly gas line explosion and fire.

Two people are unaccounted for, in addition to the four dead, authorities said Saturday. Homes crumbled under a layer of white ash as crews tried to restore basic services such as water to those still standing and make sure there was no further danger from the ruptured pipe.

“We want to make sure that the gas lines are safe,” San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said.

Some residents were allowed back into a limited area to retrieve belongings, but Ruane said he doubts any will be able to return permanently Saturday.

A group of local, state and federal officials toured the damaged area and described a ghost-town full of remnants of cars melted in driveways and pieces of houses, some left with just the chimney standing. Nearly 40 homes were destroyed and seven severely damaged, while dozens of other homes suffered less severe damage in the fire that sped across 15 acres.

At least 50 people, some critically, and crews keep searching the wreckage for signs that anyone else was caught in the blaze.

“It’s really hard to put into words the way you feel when you see a beautiful neighborhood and a whole section of it that just almost disappeared, and remnants of the cars melted in the driveways,” said Calif. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was at the scene.

Officials were still trying to determine what led up to the blast. They took measurements of the blown out section of the steel gas pipe, and may send them to Washington, D.C., where examination under a microscope could help pinpoint what caused it to fracture, said Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who was at the scene.

He said federal investigators will analyze the pipeline’s condition, along with its maintenance history, pressure levels and the safeguards put in place to prevent pressure from building up. Hart said the NTSB will also look at the training and experience of the people who operated the pipeline and screen them for alcohol and drugs.

“The magnitude of the damage is just appalling,” Hart said.

The utility is about two-thirds of the way through a review of phone records to check for complaints about gas in the area, said PG&E President Chris Johns. Residents have said they alerted PG&E of gas odors in the neighborhood before the disaster.

The utility said none of its crews was at work on the line Thursday.

Transmission lines like the one that burst in San Bruno deliver natural gas from its source to distribution lines, which then carry it into neighborhoods before branching off into homes.

Over the past two decades, federal officials tallied 2,840 significant gas pipeline accidents nationwide — including 992 in which someone was killed or required hospitalization, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Those accidents killed 323 people and injured 1,372.

One person who died in the explosion hasn’t yet been identified. The others are Jacquelin Greig, 44, her daughter Janessa, 13, and Jessica Morales, 20.

Greig lived in a house just yards from the source of the blast. In her job with the California Public Utilities Commission, she worked to protect consumers from soaring monthly gas bills or dangerous pipeline expansions, co-workers said.

“This is so difficult for us because we’re such a small group,” said her co-worker Pearlie Sabino. “She does a lot of cases related to natural gas, that’s the irony of it.”

Contributing to this report were video journalist Haven Daley in San Bruno, John S. Marshall in San Francisco and Garance Burke in Fresno, Calif.

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