IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Death toll in Calif. blast hits 7, police say

The number of victims in the devastating blast rose late Saturday with the discovery of three more sets of remains, the San Bruno police chief said.
An emergency worker walks through an area of burned homes in San Bruno, Calif., on Saturday.
An emergency worker walks through an area of burned homes in San Bruno, Calif., on Saturday.Noah Berger / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

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."

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.

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."

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.

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."