Home San Bruno Smoldering ruins, rising death toll after massive San Bruno explosion, fire

Smoldering ruins, rising death toll after massive San Bruno explosion, fire


(9/10) — UPDATED 22:21 PDT — SAN BRUNO — In the aftermath of a natural gas pipeline explosion that rocked a San Bruno neighborhood Thursday evening, emergency crews continue to assess the damage and search for victims in the rubble.

The official death toll stands at four. The San Mateo County coroner has confirmed Jessica Morales, 20, Jacqueline Greig, 44, and her 13-year-old daughter Janessa are among the deceased. Officials could not yet confirm reports of the identity of the fourth victim, believed to be an elderly woman in her eighties.

Fire Chief Dennis Haag has said the search effort is 75 percent complete, with some areas still being too hot to safely enter. Canine searches for victims will continue on Saturday.

In a 6 p.m. news conference, Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado, who is acting governor while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is in Asia, said the scene was still one of “devastation” and said he is committed to finding answers to the disaster.

“We need to know how this happened. We need to know why this happened. We need to make sure this never happens again,” he said.

Maldonado said he received a phone call from President Barack Obama on Friday, who expressed his concern.

The inferno erupted at 6:11 p.m., when a ruptured Pacific Gas and Electric Co. gasline sent a massive fireball 150 feet into the sky near residences on Claremont, Earl and Glenview Drives in San Bruno’s Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood. The U.S. Geological Survey recorded a 1.3 magnitude tremor in the area at the time of the eruption.

The flames ignited neighboring structures, quickly engulfing dozens of homes that burned to the ground in an area sandwiched between Highway 280 to the east and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s Crystal Springs Reservoir to the west.

Officials said the blaze burned 15 acres and is now fully contained. At least 38 structures were destroyed, down from a Thursday evening estimate of 53, and seven more homes suffered significant damage.

“There is still a dark cloud hanging over this city,” San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said in a press conference this morning.

But City Manager Connie Jackson said San Bruno was “a strong and resilient community. We are proud to live here, and we will be proud to respond and to restore the vitality and the safety that San Bruno is known for.”

Fire Chief Haag said, “as devastating as this was, it could have been so much worse.” High humidity, low temperatures and relatively weak winds as is common in San Bruno helped firefighters keep the fire from spreading.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which handles investigations into pipeline accidents as well as air, rail, and marine transport incidents, is leading the investigation into the fire’s cause. The California Public Utilities Commission is spearheading the state’s investigation. The Associated Press reports two state Senate committees — Public Safety and Energy, Utilities and Communications — will soon launch their own investigations.

PG&E President Chris Johns said today that the utility company’s workers have not been able to get close enough to the source of the explosion to find out why the pipe ruptured. Johns said the 30-inch high-pressure pipeline was between 40 and 50 years old.

He could not confirm exactly when remnant gas stopped flowing from the distribution pipes but said it was at some point during the night.

Johns also could not confirm reports by area residents of a gas smell in the area for the last week or so but said PG&E will investigate and check its records of the phone calls from those complaints.

He said PG&E is committed to the relief effort and pledged $1 million to the Red Cross and other agencies to help fund temporary housing, clothing and food for fire victims.

Officials say 52 victims have been treated for their injuries, including three in critical condition with third-degree burns.

Four burn patients were admitted to San Francisco’s St. Francis Memorial Hospital Burn Center Thursday night. Dr. Michael Kulick said at a noontime press conference Friday that the three patients in the worst condition sustained burns to 50 percent of their bodies. A fourth victim suffered burns covering 40 percent of his or her body.

Four firefighters were treated and released from the hospital after suffering minor smoke-inhalation injuries.

Maldonado said 30 more fire engines will be deployed today to help supplement the efforts of the nearly 70 engines on the scene last night.

About 700 PG&E customers are still without power as of press time. AT&T cell towers in the area are back up and running on emergency power.

Evacuated residents continue to wait for the status of their homes and pets, and several residents have reported missing family members. San Bruno police have classified the neighborhood as a crime scene to limit access to the public and have said the earliest residents will be allowed back into the area is Saturday.

The Red Cross is operating three emergency shelters in the area, including at the Bayhill Shopping Center, where several businesses opened their doors to provide aid to those displaced by the fire. It is serving as a command center for disaster operations.

One person was arrested Thursday night for looting homes damaged by the fire.