Video: San Bruno blast raises doubts about hidden dangers

  1. Transcript of: San Bruno blast raises doubts about hidden dangers

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: There was something about watching all those homes in California incinerated in that natural gas explosion and fire that made people think of their own homes . To see a neighborhood that was thriving just last week gone today makes you think twice about the dangers we all live with, in this case the pipelines, gas mains that crisscross the country and bring energy to American homes , hundreds of thousands of miles of them passing right under communities like San Bruno , California . NBC 's Miguel Almaguer starts us off from there tonight just south of San Francisco . Miguel , good evening.

    MIGUEL ALMAGUER reporting: Brian , good evening. Tonight the company that owns the ruptured line offered a BP -like fund, $100 million for families affected by the blast. But tonight, many of them just want answers. As new video surfaced of last week's gas explosion in San Bruno , the Pacific Gas and Electric Company began inspecting all 5,000 miles of its natural gas lines. The mandate, issued by a state regulator, was ordered to protect the gas company's 15 million customers. But according to energy experts, Thursday's disaster that incinerated nearly 40 homes and obliterated an entire neighborhood could have happened anywhere.

    Mr. JIM HALL (Former NTSB Chairman): This is a national safety issue because in many local communities, because of a lack of local rules and regulations, neighborhoods have been able -- neighborhoods have grown and sprawled over these high pressure pipelines.

    ALMAGUER: With no cause determined in the gas line rupture PG&E has come under fire for not replacing the 50-year-old pipe that ruptured sooner. The 30-inch transmission line , buried before homes were built here, was never intended to run under such a densely populated neighborhood. PG says the pipe appeared stable and was inspected twice in the last year.

    Mr. CHRIS JOHNS (PG&E President): We have not found anything in our records that would indicate that people called for that specific area.

    ALMAGUER: Nationwide there are 305,000 miles of natural gas lines serving more than 65 million homes . Over 50 percent of households are heated by natural gas . Within days of Thursday's explosion, California state leaders called for a congressional hearing.

    Representative JACKIE SPEIER (Democrat, California): Across this country gas is being distributed to homes , and I think the question that everyone's asking, 'Is this going to happen in my community?'

    ALMAGUER: In San Bruno , critics say PG&E neglected public safety. Watchdog groups called the pipeline one of the most dangerous in the country. They point to one of the gas company's own memos, which reads, "the likelihood of a failure at this location, unacceptably high."

    Unidentified Man: These gas lines are definitely a ticking time bomb, and that is why people are concerned, and that's why federal and state regulators need to intervene.

    ALMAGUER: But PG&E insist their lines are safe. Meantime, Bob and Tina Pelligrini have lost everything they own. This was their home before the blast. This is their community today.

    Mr. BOB PELLIGRINI: I'm sure a lot of other people are worried about what's running underneath their streets and their neighborhood.

    ALMAGUER: Tonight, PG&E says money for the blast victims who live in the neighborhood just behind me will never make up for what's happened, and they also admitted during a news conference today they're not sure how many of these big gas lines run through neighborhoods all across this region. Brian :

    WILLIAMS: Miguel Almaguer starting us off just south of San Francisco in San Bruno , California . Miguel ,

Image: Sally Martinez
Tony Avelar  /  AP
Evacuee Sally Martinez returned to her home in San Bruno, Calif., on Sunday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/13/2010 4:21:43 PM ET 2010-09-13T20:21:43

Patrick Yu has had nightmares and headaches since a fireball from a natural gas explosion caused his ceiling to crash down next to him while he slept.

He was one of many residents who returned to the ruined hillsides of their suburban San Francisco neighborhood Sunday after Thursday's pipeline blast and fire destroyed nearly 50 homes and damaged dozens of others.

The explosion prompted California regulators to order the utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, to survey all its natural gas lines in the state in hopes of heading off another disaster.

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Returning residents were wearing wristbands that show police they live in the area.

Yu said he crouched in the doorway after the blast, thinking he was in the middle of an earthquake. When the shaking subsided, he found that the heat had warped the door so much he had to pull with all his strength to get out of the bedroom.

Video: Raw video shows San Bruno blast

The 62-year-old learned Sunday that his house had been red-tagged, meaning it has extensive damage and will require closer inspection before authorities can declare it safe.

"I have lots of memories in that house," Yu said. "Lots of stuff you can't replace."

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

Pat and Roger Haro fared better. They 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.

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"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."

Investigators were still trying to confirm how many people died.

The remains of at least four people have been found, and authorities have said four are missing and at least 60 injured, some critically. Two people reported missing after the blast were located Sunday, city spokeswoman Robyn Thaw said.

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

KPCC radio reported Monday that residents of 84 homes had been prevented from returning until officials established that the buildings were safe to enter.

At a service Sunday morning at St. Robert's Catholic Church, the Rev. Vincent Ring conducted a prayer for the victims.

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

Huge crater
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.

A risky segment of the gas line was due to be replaced, the utility responsible said, because it ran through a heavily urbanized area and the likelihood of failure was "unacceptably high." That 30-inch diameter pipe a few miles north was installed in 1948 and slated to be swapped for new, smaller pipe.

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

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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 with 24-inch pipe as a part of its broader proposal to upgrade infrastructure that the commission began considering last year.

Souvall said Sunday that no one complained to the utility's call centers of smelling gas in the San Bruno neighborhood in the week leading up to the blast.

'Constantly monitoring'
He said the ruptured section, which was installed in 1956, was last checked for leaks in March. The company said later Sunday that no leaks were found.

The segment farther north was checked for leaks on Friday and none were found, Souvall added.

"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."

In ordering the company to conduct the leak survey on its natural gas lines, the state's Public Utilities Commission said Sunday that PG&E must give priority to higher pressure pipelines, as well as to lines in areas of high population density.

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The order comes after Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, the state's acting governor, asked the commission to order the utility company to conduct an integrity assessment of its natural gas pipeline system.

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

Crews on Sunday packed into a crate the 28-foot section of ruptured natural gas pipeline blown out of the ground and hurled 100 feet in the explosion, said Christopher Hart, National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman.

Investigators were to ship the pipeline to the NTSB's metallurgy lab in Washington, D.C., for intensive examination, he said.

Metal fragments
Also being shipped were two 10-foot sections of pipe removed from the crater Sunday from either side of where the ruptured section had been.

Investigators believed they had collected all the sections needed to reconstruct the metal pipeline but asked that anyone who found metal fragments in the blast area contact the NTSB. The agency also wanted to know of any instances of dead vegetation before the explosion, which could indicate a gas leak.

Ravindra Chhatre, the lead NTSB investigator, has more than 30 years experience with pipelines. NBC News reported that Chhatre estimated it would be at least 14 months before his team would issue a final report and recommendations.

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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