Video: Calif. explosion seemed like 'end of the world'

  1. Closed captioning of: Calif. explosion seemed like 'end of the world'

    >>> good evening. we come to you tonight from a huge hollywood sound stage where later this evening we'll be hosting " stand up to cancer ." we'll have more on that a bit later on in this broadcast.

    >>> we must begin with a major news story just up the coast from us here in california. it was dinner time last night, about 6:15 in san bruno , california, the routine of a normal thursday in the neighborhood was shattered by an explosion so loud it was heard for miles. then came the geyser of flames shooting 300 feet in the air and then the noise. people near the blast zone understandably thought it was an earthquake, a nuclear explosion , perhaps a plane had gone down. turned out to be a natural gas line exploding and a fire that wasn't brought under control until just this afternoon. san bruno is a city of about 30,000 people, give or take, just south of san francisco , just west of that city's airport, sfo. federal investigators have converged on the neighborhood where the gas main blew up. we begin our broadcast tonight from the scene. our own kristen welker and miguel almaguer are there for us. good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. the blast has already been called a state of emergency . this city reeling from an explosion so powerful it claimed lives and forever charred the landscape here. as day broke in a neighborhood not far from san francisco international airport , smoldering debris from 38 burned-out homes is all those left. firefighters hosed down hot spots as dogs searched the rubble. four are confirmed dead , a number authorities fear could rise. a massive water-filled crater marked the center of the blast.

    >> we thought a jet had gone down.

    >> reporter: at dinner time thursday, a gas-fuelled fireball shot hundreds of feet into the air. the explosion forcing families to run for their lives.

    >> i seen a chunk of concrete fly out the size of a car.

    >> reporter: windows shattered, asphalt melted. the force of the blast was felt miles away . it was chaos and confusion. one residence department catl one residence department c called it hel l on earth. i thought it was an earthquake.

    >> i looked out the window and saw this huge explosion.

    >> reporter: an ttoiantoinette was doing paperwork. didn't think you'd make it out?

    >> i didn't.

    >> reporter: the fire spread instantly from house to house. firefighters struggled to control the growing blaze, hampered by exploding gas lines and fire hydrants with no water source .

    >> it was difficult to approach. we couldn't be successful putting out the fire with the supply being shut down.

    >> reporter: the cause of the blast is under investigation, but the local gas company, pacific gas & electric , says a 30-inch gas line likely ruptured. a google earth image from 2007 shows the spot had been marked for maintenance or repair. today, that spot was still too dangerous to reach. now the search for answers begins in a community torn apart by a blast where little is left standing. miguel almaguer,

NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 9/10/2010 8:58:58 PM ET 2010-09-11T00:58:58

Nearly a day after a natural gas pipeline exploded, wiping out 37 homes and killing at least 4 people, the utility that owns the line said Friday it was still "looking into" residents' claims that they had complained for days and weeks about a gas odor.

PG&E President Chris Johns told reporters Friday morning that "we haven't got confirmation" about any complaints "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."

By midafternoon Friday, however, the utility could not confirm the residents' reports, saying it was "looking into it."

State Assemblyman Jerry Hill, who represents San Bruno and surrounding cities, said he has heard multiple reports from constituents who had alerted PG&E of gas odors in the neighborhood before the disaster.

The residents "deserve to know if PG&E used the correct procedures in the days and weeks leading up to this disaster," Hill said.

Tim Gutierrez, who lives in the neighborhood, told NBC affiliate KNTV that a representative from the utility PG&E was in the neighborhood last week and told people to shut their garage doors and stay inside as they looked into the complaint.

PG&E said it was trying to find out what caused the steel gas pipe to rupture and ignite. Federal pipeline safety inspectors were also on the scene.

At the scene, meanwhile, hot embers kept search crews from entering some of the 37 homes destroyed in the gas explosion and fire Thursday night in this San Francisco suburb.

"Some residences remain too hot to enter," San Bruno Fire Chief Dennis Haag told reporters Friday afternoon.

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The search crews were to resume their work Saturday morning.

Officials also revised the property numbers, saying 37 homes were destroyed and eight saw visible damage. Dozens of others might have limited damage as well.

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California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado said area hospitals had taken in 52 patients. Eight people were in critical condition. Emergency room personnel also treated four firefighters, he said.

As search crews with dogs fanned out Friday, San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane told reporters that "you heard the numbers (of deaths), but unfortunately the numbers will get higher."

Utility officials said a natural gas line ruptured in the vicinity of the blast, which left a giant crater and sent flames tearing across several suburban blocks in San Bruno just after 6 p.m. local time (9 p.m. ET) Thursday.

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 shells. At least 120 homes also suffered serious damage.

Blast shook fire station 'to its foundation'
Witnesses heard the explosion miles away and said it shot a fireball more than 1,000 feet in the air, sending frightened residents fleeing for safety and rushing to get belongings out of burning homes.

"I thought a 747 had landed on us," Fire Capt. Charlie Barringer told the Los Angeles Times. "It shook our station right to its foundation."

The fire had spread to 15 acres, Maldonado said, before it was fully contained except for "a few hot spots" Friday morning.

Maldonado, who is the acting governor while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is on a trade mission to Asia, declared a state of emergency in San Mateo County.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co, which serves the San Francisco Bay area, said Friday morning a damaged section of a 30-inch steel gas pipeline had been isolated and gas flow had been stopped. It also cut power to 5,800 customers to ensure the safety of repair crews.

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"If it is ultimately determined that we were responsible for the cause of the incident, we will take accountability," the company said in an e-mailed statement.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent an eight-member team to San Bruno to investigate.

Barringer, the fire captain, said flames engulfed the neighborhood by the time firefighters arrived, even though the fire station was only a few blocks away. He said the blast took out the entire water system, forcing firefighters to pump water from more than two miles away.

"We were overwhelmed. We had multiple neighborhoods on fire," he told the Times.

"It was a continuous whooshing sound as if it was a fed fire," added 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."

Slideshow: Massive fire in San Bruno (on this page)

'I don't know where to go'
Resident Connie Bushman returned home to find her block was on fire. She said she ran into her house looking for her 80-year-old father but could not find him. A firefighter told her he had left, but she had not been able to track him down.

"I don't know where my father is, I don't know where my husband is, I don't know where to go," Bushman said.

Resident Marla Shelmadine told NBC the explosions came down her street, destroying one house at a time in quick succession. She said she got out of her house with her pets, and did not know if her home was destroyed or not.

Omar Naber and his mother, Lana Naber, told the San Francisco Chronicle they were in their home when the house shook violently.

"I thought it was the biggest earthquake ever," he told the paper.

Naber described how he ran to his door and tried to open it, but the handle burned his hand. He then fled the house with his mother and as they ran to their car they could see the fireball. The intense heat burned hair off his arms, Naber said.

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 at 6:14 p.m.

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"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."

Other neighbors told NBC they saw the street rip apart and ran for their lives from a huge wall of flames, with one man describing how he jumped into his car and drove through the blaze.

The man, who was not identified, told NBC the explosion was followed by a hail of asphalt falling from the sky. His bumper was fried by the time he got to safety, but he was safe.

U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Pipeline Safety / msnbc.com

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 pipeline that exploded Thursday, Maldonado said, was laid down about 60 years ago.

Compared to the tens of thousands of miles of gas pipelines across the country, accidents are relatively rare.

In 2009, there were 163 significant accidents involving natural gas pipelines, killing 10 people and injuring 59.

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.

Experts say the nation's 296,000 miles of onshore natural-gas lines routinely suffer breakdowns and failures.

More than 60 percent of the lines are 40 years old or older and almost half were installed in the 1950s and 1960s, according to a recent analysis by the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Bellingham, Wash.

Most of the older pipelines lack anticorrosion coatings that are prevalent in the industry today, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the trust, which was set up following a 1999 explosion that killed three people in Bellingham.

"The industry always says that if you take care of pipelines, they'll last forever," Weimer said. "But what we see over and over again is companies are not doing that and corrosion and other factors are causing failures."

And once a high-pressure pipeline fails, he added, anything can trigger a deadly blast. A cigarette or rocks smashing as high-pressure gas shoots by. Even someone answering a cell phone can cause a spark, because it is battery-powered, Weimer said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: Massive fire in San Bruno

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  1. Emergency workers sift through rubble of a burned down home on Sunday, three days after the natural gas pipeline explosion. (Tony Avelar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Search and rescue teams escort a cadaver dog through a destroyed San Bruno neighborhood on Sunday. (Josh Edelson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. An unidentified man inspects the roof of a house labeled with a 'green card,' indicating that it is undamaged. (Josh Edelson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Julie Frechette, left, comforts neighbor Janel Costanzo shortly after the two returned to their fire-ravaged neighborhood on Sunday. Police allowed some residents home for the first time since Thursday night's gas line rupture. Frechette and Costanzo, who live on Glenview Drive, suffered minor damage to their houses. (Noah Berger / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Hundreds of displaced San Bruno residents jammed a town hall meeting at St. Robert's Catholic Church in San Bruno on Saturday. (Tony Avelar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The remains of burned vehicles and homes are seen Saturday near the site of a natural gas explosion. (Noah Berger / Pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A wrecked gas pipe lies on the street as investigators gather at the scene on Saturday. (Stephen Lam / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The sun rises on Friday to reveal rows of chimneys where homes once stood. (Peter Dasilva / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The explosion left this crater, which by Friday morning had filled with water. (Jeff Chiu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Homes sit destroyed or damaged by the fire, which spread from the explosion that produced the crater near top left. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A for sale sign is shown in front of three San Bruno homes that were destroyed in the explosion. (Paul Sakuma / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A massive fire roars through the mostly residential neighborhood of San Bruno on Thursday. (Jeff Chiu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Cars were among the possessions destroyed by the fire that followed the explosion. (Paul Sakuma / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A helicopter drops water on the huge blaze. (Paul Sakuma / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Firefighters battle house fires Thursday night. In all, 38 homes were destroyed. (Peter Dasilva / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A woman is treated after the explosion. (Mike Adaskaveg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Evacuees check in with officials in San Bruno. (Jeff Chiu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Judy and Frank Serresseque move their cats and a few belongings after they were evacuated following the explosion. (Mike Adaskaveg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A video frame grab from KNTV shows part of the fire. (NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. San Francisco firefighters monitor the flames. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A law enforcement official runs toward the massive San Bruno fire. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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