SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Police and fire crews are sifting through rubble left by a fiery explosion that tore through a neighborhood in San Bruno, fueled by a PG&E gas line. The fire started around 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the town 8 miles south of San Francisco, killing four people and destroying 38 homes. At least 52 burns or injuries, some of them life-threatening. Four firefighters were hospitalized.
Standing on the sidewalk with three friends nearly 24 hours later, 64 year-old San Bruno resident John Vella said he was just trying to figure out what was going on. Police officers had erected a perimeter about a quarter of a mile around the burned-out neighborhood, blocking cars, news vans and people on foot from entering the site.
All Vella could gather from three officers up the block was that a federal and local police investigation was underway. One of his friends, whom he identified as Martin, said all four were “thinking of trying to walk over,” but had been stopped by police.
When a car pulled up, Vella paused to give directions to the three people inside, who said they were trying to find the Red Cross emergency shelter where donations were being accepted. “We thought it was supposed to be at San Bruno Park,” said a woman, scrutinizing an Internet print-out through her sunglasses. “Where is that?” she asked. “It’s on Crystal Springs Road,” Vella said, pointing.
Vella said he was cooking in the kitchen when the fire erupted. “I heard what sounded like a low-flying plane then I heard a big explosion,” said Vella, recalling that he ran out into his backyard only a few blocks away from the blast to investigate.
“It sounded like a jet engine running. I looked north and I could see a balloon of flames through the trees. The smoke got bigger and the flames got higher. I thought if those flames burn those trees [the fire] could come my way.”
Vella was “relieved” when he learned the explosion was not from a passenger plane, but was still concerned that flames had reached the Church of the Highlands, where he attends services. “I actually called the church,” he said. “It’s a very active church so I was concerned.”
Luckily, the church had not been damaged, but Vella said he heard one of his friends who lived in the Crestmoor neighborhood had been injured in the explosion. “He was standing outside his house when it happened,” said Vella. “He said it was so hot that he could feel his feet starting to melt in his shoes.” Vella said his friend is okay, as was his wife, who was working at the church when the gas line broke, shooting flames hundreds of feet into the air.
Aerial views of the smoldering ruins show an approximately 30 foot-wide crater left by the erupted line. Fire crews said it was still too hot to survey all the homes damaged by the 15-acre inferno.
At the Red Cross shelter, dozens of volunteers loaded pallets of bottled water into trucks, as cars pulled into the crammed parking lot with donations of food and clothing. Exhausted and displaced, victims of the blaze milled in groups, talking amongst each other by not to media. “I’ve been out here all night and I’ve got nothing left in me,” said one man.
Greg Smith of the Red Cross said the Veterans Memorial Recreation Center is acting as a temporary shelter, and a second shelter has been established at the next-door senior center.
“We had an overnight population of 32, plus six in the senior center,” said Smith, saying others probably “found accommodation with friends and relatives.” Smith said victims’ needs were being addressed for now, but he was “more concerned about what’s going to happen over the weekend and later next week” and said monetary donations were needed most. “Two, three, four, five weeks from now it won’t be a question of used clothing,” Smith said.
At an evening news conference, vice-chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board Christopher Hart said his immediate assessment of the wreckage was of “the charred trees, the melted and charred cars and houses. It was an amazing scene of destruction.”
He said while “at this point it’s too early to speculate as to what may have happened,” the NTSB assembled an eight-member investigative team to look at a variety of areas of the pipeline, including the “insulation, maintenance, the value of pressure it can withstand and the safeguards in place. Also, we are looking at the emergency preparedness and what plans were in place by PG&E to respond to these situations.” Another team “will look at all the people who operate the pipeline, including if any have problems with drugs or alcohol.”
“We are not here to determine blame or liability, but the cause. We are working to thoroughly investigate and document the site to understand why it happened and prevent the same thing from happening in the future. The report will come out in 14, 16 or 18 months, but if we find safety concerns we will put out immediate recommendations,” Hart said.
He also urged any witnesses that had not yet been interviewed to come forward, especially if they have recently smelled gas fumes in the neighborhood.
A large piece of pipe shot up out of the hole created by the eruption, Hart said. “In explosions, nothing is unusual.”