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Families Blame PG&E for ‘Preventable’ Disaster

SAN MATEO, Calif. (CN) - Attorneys for 18 families whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the September gas explosion in San Bruno place blame for the disaster squarely at the feet of PG&E. Besides failing to maintain the enormous pipeline under a rapidly growing neighborhood, the families say, PG&E applied for rate increases in each of the 3 years before the disaster, seeking $5 million in taxpayer money to replace the pipe, but "never made the repairs for which they received the funds."

The Sept. 9 explosion and fire killed 8 people and destroyed 37 homes. Hundreds were evacuated and dozens were burned.

"We have people who were severely physically injured, some who have minor property damage but who were home at the time and fled. All of these people continue to suffer emotional distress," their attorney, Jerry Nastari, said in an interview on Wednesday.

Nastari said he and his colleague Amanda Riddle, also representing the families, "have spent the last two months in prolonged meetings with each of our clients, listening to each of their stories. It's a tremendous ordeal as they continue reliving this event. It's just a tremendous tragedy."

According to the complaint: "At 6:00 p.m. on September 9, 2010, Crestmoor families were settling in for the evening. Dinner was being prepared, homework was being finished and many were tuned in to the first Thursday night football game of the season between the Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints and the Minnesota Vikings. The neighborhood was in its usual safe and peaceful state. That all changed in an instant. Houses shook violently and a rumbling sound grew louder by the second. At first, family members gazed at each other in shock ... As the residents ran to their doors and windows, they saw that the sky had turned a bright orange. The sensation of extreme heat immediately followed and it felt as if they were suddenly trapped in an oven. As they opened their doors to flee, they were met by a huge, pulsating fireball over 85 feet high. They ran for their lives. Many did not make it. Others were severely burned and watched as their homes and personal keepsakes, and those of their neighbors, were incinerated. All were emotionally traumatized and damaged. Inexplicably, PG&E allowed the 85-foot-high fireball to run rampant and terrorize the neighborhood for almost two hours. The prolonged attack was caused by PG&E's failure to install automatic shut-off valves and properly prepare its emergency responders.

"In the following days, the facts got worse, as it became clear that this disaster was entirely preventable. PG&E's safety record is poor. Prior to this explosion, PG&E had knowledge of the seriously defective condition of the pipeline and the danger that it posed to the Crestmoor neighborhood. PG&E had the funds and ability to remedy those problems, alleviate that danger, and prevent the disaster. It failed to do so."

The 39-page complaint outlines the origins of the defective pipeline, beginning with its installation in the 1950s, when the Crestmoor neighborhood was still rural and sparsely populated. PG&E equipped the pipeline with only manual shut-off valves, even as automatic and remote shut-off valves became available, according to the complaint.

The 52 plaintiffs say that PG&E applied for rate increases in 2007, 2008 and 2009, seeking $5 million in taxpayer money to replace the pipe, but "never made the repairs for which they received the funds."

The families say PG&E "knew of gas leaks prior to the explosion. Three weeks prior to the incident, Crestmoor residents reported to PG&E the odor of gas emanating from the street and sewers."

Nastari added in the Wednesday interview: "We have information from our clients about the smell of general gas odors preceding the incident and that's something we are going to develop further."

Co-counsel Riddle said: "I had a client say to me today that the fire was like a canopy that came up over the houses. One thing clients keep telling me is that the heat was so unbelievable. There are so many that suffered physical burns, not from being touched by the fire, but from being exposed to the heat."

The complaint states: "The residents of the Crestmoor neighborhood who were physically injured on September 9, 2010, continue to live with the pain of those burns and the results of the smoke inhalation. All of the residents continued to suffer severe emotional distress as a result of that terrifying experience, living with nightmares, depression, insomnia, and fear. Many say they can still feel the heat of the flames on their skin and the sound of a fire engine, loud noise or flash of light reduces them to tears. All were evacuated for the days following the explosion and some still remain out of their homes, which continue to remain uninhabitable. A place to call home is no longer a reality for many."

The plaintiffs join five other families who sued PG&E in October in San Mateo County Superior Court. Riddle said that while "we don't anticipate this being a class action," in light of all the lawsuits resulting from the tragedy, "we intend to suggest to the courts that there be some sort of coordination in the proceedings and in discovery because we have so many common issues."

The families say they still have not been adequately compensated by PG&E for the damages to or loss of their homes. They seek compensatory and punitive damages for negligence, strict liability, inverse condemnation and private and public nuisance.

Nastari said he could not specify how much relief the families seek at this point, as many have still-mounting medical bills and some require continuing surgery.

The only defendant in the Superior Court complaint in Pacific Gas & Electric.

Nastari and Riddle are with Corey, Luzaich, Pliska, De Ghetaldi & Nastari, of Millbrae.

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