Image: Destruction in San Bruno suburb
Noah Berger  /  AP
An emergency worker walks through an area of burned homes in San Bruno, Calif., on Saturday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/12/2010 1:02:44 AM ET 2010-09-12T05:02:44

The number of victims in the devastating blast and fire that hit this San Francisco suburb jumped late Saturday to seven with the discovery of three more sets of remains, the San Bruno police chief said.

In addition, said Police Chief Neil Telford, six people were now considered missing.

"Our hearts go out to the victims of this tragedy," Telford said in a statement. "This is devastating to so many families."

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Specially trained search dogs found the additional victims, Telford said. The San Mateo County Coroner's Office will identify the victims of Thursday's Glenview Fire.

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The statement said the the city of San Bruno would hold a news conference at 8 a.m. Sunday to tell residents when they could return to their neighborhoods.

San Mateo County's coroner would not confirm the new deaths Saturday night.

The news came amid conflicting reports of dead and missing. Earlier, a city spokesman said two more sets of remains had been found. Later the spokesman backed off that number, and police said five people were still missing.

As investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board continued their probe into the cause of the blast, residents gathered at a town hall meeting in search of answers.

Hundreds of people packed into a church on a warm afternoon, asking questions about insurance claims, the safety of gas lines, and when displaced residents might be able to return home.

Mayor Jim Ruane told the assembled crowd: "In a split second, flash, our lives changed forever. Some were lost. This has been a tragedy of immense proportions."

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2008 project questioned
Records surfaced Saturday showing that in May 2008, the San Bruno City Council hired a construction company to replace underground sewer lines in the same area as the location of the pipeline that exploded, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

D'Arcy and Harty Construction, a San Francisco firm, was contracted to replace 1,670 feet of aging sewer pipes on Earl Avenue from Sneath Lane to Glenview Drive, the paper said. The sewer work crossed the gas pipeline at the intersection of Earl and Glenview, the explosion site.

To avoid digging trenches, the contractor used a method called "pipe bursting," the Mercury News said. Crews pulled a large, cone-shaped device through aging, 6-inch sewer pipes, shattering them, and replaced them by pulling a new, 10-inch, polyethylene sewer pipe in behind them. The technique can cause ground shaking and disruption of adjacent soil and rock, the paper said.

At the town hall meeting, PG&E vice president Geisha Williams, told residents PG&E inspected the gas line before and after the sewer work and found no problems, the paper said. She said the gas line also was inspected in November 2009 for corrosion in a routine check of all high-pressure lines, the paper said. Routine annual inspections were conducted in March 2009 and March 2010, the Mercury News reported.

'High risk' ranking
The section of gas pipeline that ruptured was ranked as high risk because it ran through a highly populated area, state and federal authorities said Saturday.

One of the victims killed in the inferno Thursday worked for the commission reviewing Pacific Gas & Electric's investment plans to upgrade its natural gas lines, including another risky section of the same pipeline within miles of her home, a colleague confirmed.

Longtime California Public Utilities Commission analyst Jacqueline Greig and her 13-year-old daughter Janessa died in the massive blast, which left a crater near their house and laid waste to dozens of 1960s-era homes in the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Jessica Morales, 20, was also killed in the explosion and fire. One other victim found earlier has yet to be identified, and authorities were trying to identify remains found Saturday morning.

Greig spent part of the summer evaluating PG&E's expansion plans and proposals to replace out-of-date pipes, as part of the utility's overall bid to raise consumers' rates, co-worker Pearlie Sabino said.

Sabino and Greig were members of a small commission team that advocates for consumer protections pertaining to natural gas.

"It's just so shocking because she was one of the ones who was most closely involved with this kind of work," said Mike Florio, an attorney with the San Francisco advocacy group The Utility Reform Network who worked with Greig. "Little did we know that pipe was near Jackie's own neighborhood."

Among the paperwork PG&E submitted for hearings with regulators was a document ranking a section of the same gas line about two and half miles from the blast as within "the top 100 highest risk line sections" in the utility's entire service territory, documents show.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration classified the 30-inch diameter line, which ran for about a mile and a half in Greig's neighborhood, as a "high concentration area" requiring more stringent inspections, agency spokeswoman Julia Valentine said.

The state commission gave that section of pipe the same classification and had conducted audits on that stretch, spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said. PG&E also had conducted leak surveys, evaluations, and patrols on the gas line, she said.

Local, state and federal officials toured the damaged area Saturday and described a ghost-town full of remnants of cars melted in driveways and pieces of houses, some left with just the chimney standing.

Besides the 40 homes leveled by the blast, seven were severely damaged, while dozens of other houses suffered less severe damage in the fire that sped across 15 acres.

Residents of roughly 270 homes that have been off-limits following the blaze will be allowed to return for good starting around noon on Sunday, San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson said. Some residents were authorized to enter a limited area Saturday to retrieve belongings.

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Michelle Salinda's home was destroyed in the fire, but her husband, Ricardo, and 15-year-old son were able to escape. She said she wants to return to what's left of her home to find closure.

"I can't wait to see it, even though it's all destroyed, because I know that's where I am going to start again," she said.

Ricardo Salinda described a harrowing scene as he and his son escaped from a 200-foot fireball racing toward the front door of their home. The two suffered burns as they fled the flames.

They used a ladder to scale a neighbor's fence but it was too hot there, and Salinda said he lifted his 120-pound son over the next fence and scrambled after him.

"I don't know how I was able to lift him," he said. "It's a blessing we got out."

This article contains reporting from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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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Video: Death toll rises in California blast

  1. Transcript of: Death toll rises in California blast

    CARL QUINTANILLA, co-host: Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board remain on the scene in San Bruno , California , the site of that devastating gas line rupture, and the death toll is climbing this weekend. NBC 's Miguel Almaguer joins us with the very latest. Miguel , good morning.

    MIGUEL ALMAGUER reporting: Carl , good morning. The official death toll is now seven and some six people are still missing, their fate uncertain. It's been three days since the blast and investigators are still tallying the damage. As investigators return to the blast site where the 30-inch gas line ruptured Thursday, search teams continue to look for the missing. Many fear that those still unaccounted for are buried in the debris field.

    Chief NEIL TELEFORD (San Bruno Police Department): I do not have the number of additional victims. We will report that once that has been confirmed.

    ALMAGUER: Twenty-year-old Jessica Morales was killed during the blast.

    Mr. RICARDO CAMPOS (Jessica's Neighbor): Full of life, nice attitude, good -- great personality, always a smile on her face.

    ALMAGUER: She was at her boyfriend's home during the explosion. He was seriously injured trying to rescue her.

    Ms. DAYNA HERNANDEZ (Jessica's Friend): When I saw her name on the news and her picture last night, I -- just that was it, I started crying, and my friend called me and Jessica 's boyfriend's cousin called me about it and we were both crying on the phone.

    ALMAGUER: Thursday's gas-fueled fireball, which shot hundreds of feet into the air, started a chain reaction of explosions and destroyed nearly 40 homes. Fire jumped house to house, wiping out several square blocks before crews could contain the damage.

    Unidentified Woman: We have some information for you today.

    ALMAGUER: At a community meeting Saturday afternoon, hundreds packed a local church looking for answers. Some evacuees were told they'll be able to return to their homes later today , many unsure what they'll find.

    Ms. MILETTE RANDOLPH (Evacuee): My kids are safe, we're OK, so I was just ready to let go of all this stuff. Memories will always be there but, you know, our lives cannot be replaced.

    ALMAGUER: The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation and says it could take nearly a year for an official report. State leaders have promised a congressional hearing, hoping to ease the fear of those who are able to return home later today . The local power company that operates the gas line that ruptured, PG&E , says they are inspecting the three major transmission lines here in the area, they say if they are at fault they'll take full responsibility. And in a tragic coincidence, one woman that died in the blast with her 13-year-old daughter worked for the state agency that regulates PG&E . Carl :

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