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1 reportedly dead, dozens hurt in San Bruno inferno

September 9, 2010 | 10:20 pm

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A massive explosion believed to have been sparked by a gas-line break produced an inferno that consumed a San Bruno neighborhood Thursday night, leveling numerous homes and forcing residents to run for their lives. There was one confirmed fatality and more than two dozen people were reported injured, some with severe burns.

The blast, which occurred shortly after 6 p.m., ignited a wind-driven fire that quickly destroyed dozens of homes, set tree tops on fire and illuminated the sky for miles around. Hours after the explosion, fire crews from around the state continued to converge on the scene, but their efforts were hampered by winds that reportedly reached more than 20 mph.

As of 9:45 p.m., authorities had confirmed no deaths, although radio reports said at least one body had been found. A complete search of the area proved impossible with the fire still out of control. A news conference was scheduled for 10 p.m.

“My house is gone. I’m trying to keep from just breaking down. Everything’s gone,” said Tina Pellegrini, whose home was near Claremont and Glenview drives. “I was in my bedroom and heard a boom,” she said. “My house is shaking. I thought it was an earthquake. I get the dog to go ride it out. We look out the living room window and it was orange. I had the forethought to put on my shoes and grab my purse and run out of my house. I could feel the fire from five houses away. It was so intense.”

Some witnesses in the residential area, which is not far from San Francisco International Airport, said the explosion sounded like a plane crash, but authorities soon ruled that out. Although Pacific Gas and Electric crews on the scene told television news reporters that a gas-line rupture had sparked the explosion, spokesmen for the power company cautioned that they were still investigating. “Our hearts and thoughts go out to those affected by this terrible, terrible tragedy,” said PG&E spokesman J.B. Guidi.

Neighbors and volunteer groups pitched in to help, with some residents reportedly stepping in to direct traffic away from the area. Scores of evacuees gathered at the Bayhill shopping center, where people clustered around a Starbucks and an Extreme Pizza store a few miles from explosion site. Hifa Salfiti, who lives on Claremont Drive, said she and her husband were stunned by the blast.

“We were sitting in the house and heard a huge explosion,” she said. “We thought first of all it was an earthquake. It was beyond huge. We ran to the deck and saw a huge fire. We ran to the street and they began evacuating us. The fire was like hell.” Salfiti, wearing a pink bathrobe, said she and her husband quickly fled. She did not know if their house was still standing.

Throughout the evening, shaken people arrived at the shopping center, embracing each other and talking about their losses. Bob Marshall, former mayor of San Bruno, a city of about 41,000, said his house was undamaged in the blast.

He came to see if anybody needed help. “We were in our house. It sure sounded like a plane went over,” Marshall said. “The next thing we saw -- the flames, the explosion and the flames.”

-- Maria L. LaGanga and Jessica Guynn in San Bruno; Rong-Gong Lin II and Robert J. Lopez in Los Angeles

Photo: Brant Ward / SFC

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