Image: People wait to return to fire-ravaged neighborhood
Noah Berger  /  AP
Tina Villareal leans on Nelson Alvarado while waiting to return to her home in a fire-ravaged San Bruno, Calif., neighborhood on Sunday.
updated 9/12/2010 8:19:35 PM ET 2010-09-13T00:19:35

California regulators are ordering Pacific Gas and Electric to survey all its natural gas lines in the state in the wake of a devastating suburban San Francisco blast that killed at least four.

The order issued by the state's Public Utilities Commission Sunday comes after the explosion in a San Bruno neighborhood Thursday destroyed dozens of homes and left at least 60 injured, some critically.

As part of the order, the commission says PG&E must run leak surveys on all natural gas lines, with priority given to higher pressure pipelines and to lines in areas of high population density.

The commission also plans to appoint an independent expert panel to help with their investigation.

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A nearby segment of the line was due to be replaced, PG&E said, because it ran through a heavily urbanized area and the risk of failure was "unacceptably high." That 30-inch diameter pipe about two and a half miles north was installed in 1948, and was slated to be swapped for new 24-inch pipe.

Earlier, there were reports that some residents of the neighborhood had said there was a smell of gas in the days before the blast. But at a press conference late Sunday afternoon, a National Transportation Safety Board spokesman said no evidence had been found that reports had been made to the utility or authorities.

Video: Some residents return to devastated San Bruno area (on this page)

Investigators still don't know what caused the blast Thursday night, and even as dozens of people returned to their scorched homes — accompanied by gas workers to help restore pilot lights and make sure it is safe to turn power back on — officials tried to confirm just how many people died.

The remains of at least four people have been found, and authorities have said five people are missing and at least 60 injured, some critically.

San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said they're still trying to confirm whether some of the remains they found are human and identify victims.

Streets were crowded Sunday with Pacific Gas and Electric cars and trucks, and representatives were handing out gift certificates for grocery stores. Nearly 50 homes were destroyed and seven severely damaged in the blast, while dozens of other homes suffered less severe damage in the fire that sped across 15 acres.

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Pat and Roger Haro and their dog, "Rosie," have been living in a hotel room since Thursday after fleeing their home with the clothes they were wearing, dog food, water and an iPad.

When they returned, their home was marked with a green tag — indicating less damage than others with yellow or red tags — and their electricity was still off.

"Once I saw the house was still there then I felt a whole lot better," Pat Haro said. "I think we'll be a tighter community."

A few blocks away, houses have collapsed into black and white debris on ground, with a smell like charcoal in the air. All that remain standing is a row of brick chimneys, while across the street, some homes are undamaged.

Meanwhile, local and federal officials are probing the cause of the explosion that blew a segment of pipe 28 feet long onto the street some 100 feet away, creating a crater 167 feet long and 26 feet wide.

PG&E submitted paperwork to regulators for ongoing gas rate proceedings that said a nearby section of the same gas line a few miles away was within "the top 100 highest risk line sections" in the utility's service territory, the documents show.

Video: Some residents return to devastated San Bruno area (on this page)

The company also considered the portion that ruptured to be a "high consequence area" requiring more stringent inspections called integrity assessments, federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration spokeswoman Julia Valentine said.

Nationwide, only about 7 percent of gas lines have that classification, she said.

PG&E spokesman Andrew Souvall said the company had planned to replace the piece of the gas line mentioned in the documents as a part of its broader proposal to upgrade infrastructure that the commission began considering last year.

Souvall did not immediately say whether records showed any complaints from San Bruno residents in the days leading up the blast, or when the section that ruptured had last been inspected. But he said the segment farther north was checked for leaks on September 10 and none were found.

"We take action on a daily basis to repair our equipment as needed," he said. "PG&E takes a proactive approach toward the maintenance of our gas lines and we're constantly monitoring our system."

An inspection of the severed pipe chunk revealed that it was made of several smaller sections that had been welded together and that a seam ran its length, but a federal safety official said that did not necessarily indicate the pipe had been repaired.

Asked whether a welded pipe was more susceptible to leaks or corrosion, National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman Christopher Hart said: "Maybe, and maybe not."

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At a church service at the St. Roberts Catholic Church on Sunday morning, the Rev. Vincent Ring conducted a prayer for the people who died, as well as a prayer for the victims who have not been identified.

"We turn to God and we ask for mercy upon all our brothers who are hurtling so badly, whose lives have changed so drastically and whose help is so badly need from us," Ring said.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press video journalist Haven Daley and writer Lisa Leff in San Bruno and John S. Marshall and Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco. Burke reported from Fresno, Calif.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Some residents return to devastated San Bruno area

  1. Closed captioning of: Some residents return to devastated San Bruno area

    >>> time since a gas line explosion ripped through their neighborhood, residents of san bruno , california lucky enough to still have homes are back in them tonight. but their neighborhood is nothing like the one they left just three days ago. san bruno is south of san francisco , and take a look at this image from google earth taken a few years ago. a typical suburban neighborhood. now, look at that same neighborhood today -- devastation. house after house flattened. at least four people died. six more are still missing tonight. nbc's miguel almaguer is in san bruno . good evening, miguel .

    >> kate, good evening. after the explosion, there were hours of chaos and confusion. and today there remains uncertainty. we still don't have the exact cause of the blast, the death toll could rise. all of this as some eevacuees go home.

    >> we will not be allowed to exit your neighborhood until the re-entry process is complete.

    >> after three days of waiting, many san bruno residents who narrowly escaped with their lives on thursday, were given the all-clear to go home. doug and betty were among the lucky wunsz.

    >> i keep thinking i'm going to kiss the ground when i walk in and i can see my house again. even if it's a mess.

    >> but with 37 houses destroyed and two sustaining major damage, some can no longer call this neighborhood home. federal investigators have not yet determined why the pipeline ruptured without warning. the geyser of fire torched everything in its path, blowing a 30-foot-long section of the pipeline 130 feet in the air. the pipeline owned by pacific gas and electric is more than a half-century old. installed before many of the homes were built. so antiquated it was scheduled to be replaced in the next three years. state leaders plan for congressional hearing this week.

    >> i think many questions must be answered by all of us. whose job it is to protect our people.

    >> as investigators document the damage, recovery dogs discovered more skeletal remains. six people are still missing, 20-year-old jessica morales was killed in the explosion, her boyfriend critically injured when he tried to rescue her from the blast. jacqueline and her 13-year-old daughter were also killed and jacqueline worked for the state agency , pg & e.

    >> i don't know if she knew there was a 30-inch line in her neighborhood. people usually don't.

    >> days after the blast, images of the heldish inferno are still surfacing. when doug and betty return dodd their home of 36 years -- relief.

    >> i have a house.

    >> we have a house standing. we're happy.

    >> while some families were able to go home, not everybody will have a happy homecoming. dozens of homes remain off-limits as federal investigators continue to gather evidence. kate, we're told this investigation could take over a year.

    >> miguel almaguer reporting tonight, thank you.


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