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Officials describe immense power of San Bruno explosion

San Bruno explosion aftermath

Officials described the immense power of the gas pipeline explosion that leveled homes and killed four people in San Bruno, Calif.

The crater left by Thursday evening's explosion in a Bay Area suburb measures 50 feet by 40 feet, San Bruno Fire Chief Dennis Haag said. It's unclear how deep the crater is.

Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said he had inspected a length of the transmission pipeline that ruptured Thursday. The piece of pipeline had exploded and was flung onto a road, Hart said.

"A large portion of the pipe was actually blown out of the ground, and it is resting on the street some distance from the hole from which it was blown," he said. "It is really quite amazing to see this huge piece of pipeline blown the distance it was blown."

He said he could not say how large the section was or how far it was propelled.

Hart described the pipeline as 30-inch diameter carbon steel with a .375-inch wall thickness. He said it was installed in 1956.

He declined to comment on the average lifespan of such a pipe. "I think that depends considerably with the conditions of operation. I'm not sure there is a specific number that you could call the average."

Hart said investigators would look into the protocol for replacing a pipeline that old.

The blast injured dozens of other and ignited fires that destroyed 37 homes in the hilly neighborhood of San Bruno.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation, and the pipeline owner, Pacific Gas & Electric, said they were looking into reports that residents smelled gas in the days before Thursday's explosion.

Among the dead were a 44-year-old employee of a state agency that oversees the gas industry and her teenage daughter, officials said. Eight people remained hospitalized Friday, including some with severe burns. There were still some badly charred homes to be searched, but fire officials said they had no reports of people still missing.

The blast left a gaping crater in the street above a 30-inch gas transmission line, the sort officials say is used to transport massive volumes of gas to residential and business distribution grids.

The wind-whipped inferno, reaching 1,000 feet high at one point, rapidly spread from house to house as smaller gas lines in the area burst open, officials said. Workers were unable to shut off the fuel supply for at least an hour.

When the smoke cleared Friday, investigators began picking their way past torched homes and burned-out vehicles toward a huge piece of the massive steel pipeline jutting out of the blackened ground. At an evening news conference, the NTSB's Hart said the force of the blast had thrown a large section of pipe out of the ground, an indication of the explosion's power. "It's an amazing scene of destruction," he said.

A final report on the cause of the disaster will not be completed until late next year at the earliest, Hart said. Among the possibilities investigators will probably focus on is possible corrosion of the pipe, which has been a factor in pipeline failures, including the 2000 explosion of a 30-inch New Mexico pipe that killed a dozen people, experts said. NTSB officials said the San Bruno line was installed in 1956.

On Friday, San Bruno police said they were treating the blast site as a possible crime scene until foul play is ruled out.

PG&E officials vowed to cooperate with the federal investigation, but did not say whether the company's pipeline caused the 6:30 p.m. explosion.

"It does everyone a disservice to point fingers before any investigation of the facts has even begun," said PG&E spokesman Andrew Souvall.

-- John Hoeffel in San Bruno

Photo: Scene of the destruction in San Bruno, Calif. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

FULL COVERAGE

 
Comments () | Archives (22)

Isn't it possible with earthquake activity in the Bay Area that the pipeline was weakened?? Karla of Thousand Oaks, So. California

Isn't it a strong probability earthquake activity in the Bay Area has weakened this pipeline as well as many others??

Good writing can bring tears to the eyes. Maudlin, sentimental, self serving "look at me, what a wonderful emotive writer I am/we are" does not. The piece on the front page of the Times on Saturday morning does not belong there. It's not the kind of article that should be show cased on the front page of a newspaper which hopes to be judged as world class. In the past Times writers have done wonderful work in bringing to the public's attention the horror and heartbreak of many disasters. These writers do not belong in that class. They need to go back to journalism school and learn what really excellent writing is all about.

I bet if we'd used some of our national/state revenue for repairing infrastructure (built in 1956?!?!) instead of starting unwinnable wars and fighting oil companies on off-shore drilling legislation we'd be in a lot better shape today, especially if we called San Bruno home.
How many other bits of our infrastructure will collapse before we see how poorly our tax dollars have been used?

The investigation is going to take a year or more? Now that's stretching your paychecks out. The cause should be obvious enough that a months worth of thinking about should suffice.

USGS Site shows a 1.1 magnitude seismic event at the time of the blast. Nobody has clarified, to my knowledge, whether the seiemic event was the explosion or an event that may have triggered the explosion

Isn't it interesting how PG&E is not taking any responsibility for this explosion? It was their pipeline, their utility, their pipe. Just like BP. People had been smelling gas for a few days before this happened. And having a pipe in the ground that is over 50 years old is just unwise, especially in that area of California, so close to SF. This quote at the end of the article is just the first of many to come. 18 months from now, I'm sure PG&E will be revealed as the villain but everyone has to wait until then. Meanwhile 37 families are displaced and their lives entirely disrupted, not to mention the people who lost family members.

Great. The Infrastructure is simply crumbling.

But we need the money to spend on welfare and union pensions...

@ Carol Westberg: There's not one offending element to the style or information presented in this article. So why are you so critical? This is a basic news report and any journalist would agree. You could find fault somewhere else — perhaps — under this context, but not here. I love the manner in which non-journalists comment as if they were educated to; that includes highly educated readers. It takes years of journalism to have an expert's perspective—and one telling sign is when they can support (fairly) their position. Westberg, you have not.

I was surprised by a gentleman who was being interviewed on one of the networks yesterday. He said he'd smelled a "heavy odor" from a sewage drain something like a week before this terrible tragedy. He should have reported the odor. Natural gas is given an odor so that people will smell a leak and be able to report it. In my opinion, if this was a gas odor, this guy is, in-part, responsbile for the deaths and destruction.

Well put, Teddi Curtis... I 100% agree with you. Government needs to set it's priorities straight!

Our Granddaughter is in a "special needs" care home 2 miles from the explosion scene. It was more than scary to see this happening right before our eyes on the 6 o'clock news. We were lucky! All the more unfortunate people caught up in this tragedy have our prayers and thoughts.

The real questions that need to be answered is why they are building houses near gas pipelines and what was done prevention wise to identify the obvious gas smell that lingered for days in the area? All these questions and answers seem to have suddenly found their way into some kind of Holy Trinity Mystery abyss or in the realm of theories of complexity and mystification that need a year’s worth of investigation like in Katerina while amateur theorists are left to speculate on what actually happened. Like what we saw ad nauseum in the Gulf oil spill, we don’t need more amateur speculators and complexity theorists but expert people who get things done rapidly before the situation deteriorates and facts get covered up and watered down into fiction. Once we start asking and getting real answers about what happened and what can be prevented in the above situation, we can then start asking some real questions about why people and builders are being allowed to build houses in potential fault areas, fire hazard areas and mud slide areas. As we are now learning with our location, location, location narcissistic obsession of wanting to build on great vistas, that there are also great potential dangers in this behaviour and that preventative measures also need to be taken by the state, builders and people blindly opting for these location, location, location areas while insurance rates are skyrocketing. Enough with the mystery and mystification..

It's possible someone ate too many beans.

I used to look at the USGS maps for the Bay Area when I was a resident. There was a fairly regular 1.8 to 2.0 magnitude event at zero depth, always the same map coordinates. It was a quarry blast and was labeled as such.

So 1.1 is believable as the blast itself, somewhat smaller than a string of explosives used in earthmoving.

It's sadly ironic that the middle aged woman killed by the pipeline blast worked for the California Public Utilities Commission. She was an employee of the department whose job it is to assist consumers and public interest organizations in protesting the actions or private corporations regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, called "Public Utilities".

The PUC regulates a wide array of Public Utilities: Electricity suppliers, natural gas suppliers, drinking water suppliers, train lines. In addition, the PUC has the obligation to review the safety of what certain Public Utilities do, like the safety of intersections where train lines cross public streets.

The PUC is a weird hybrid agency, acting as both an executive branch regulator and as a court. The only place one can appeal the PUC Commissioners' decisions is to the California Supreme Court, and the court rarely takes a PUC case let alone overturning their decisions.

Specifically, the PUC is supposed to be regulating the safety of high pressure natural gas main lines in California.

From personal experience over a number of years, I can say that the decision making staff, the hearing officers and the Public Utilities Commissioners themselves are profoundly influenced by lobbyists and lawyers for Public Utilities.

In their written draft decisions, the PUC's hearing officers exhibit profound vicious, contempt for the public safety and welfare, as well as profound contempt for neighborhood and local public interest groups making intelligent commentary on issues affecting the supply of public utilities as well as their cost. The Commissioners are not much better, rarely paying heed to the public's input, rubberstamping the hearing officers' proposed decisions, and generally kissing the Public Utilities' ashes.

While I have no great love for Jerry Brown, I hope he is elected so that as a Democrat he can clean house at the Public Utilities Commission, removing all of the Commissioners, and then finding a way to remove the hearing officers who appear to be both civil service employees and profoundly corrupted by the influence of the Public Utilities lawyers and lobbyists.

Some time in the late 1990's the train-regulating staff of the PUC approved the design of the Buena Vista/San Fernando Road intersection with the Metrolink track in Burbank. With input from Burbank's City Engineer, the intersection had been designed by a well known private civil engineering company which only carried $1 Million in liability insurance. It turned out that even though they were "professional engineers", none of them had even heard of the NTSB's design standards for safe intersections between train tracks and streets. When the NTSB's written report on the 2003 Burbank Metrolink crash was made public, the NTSB reamed the PUC train-related staff and the private civil engineer for their incompetence.

Now, 6 years after that report, the PUC's train regulatory staff has "gotten religion" in doing their jobs, objecting to the creation of more at-grade road/train intersections in heavily trafficked areas. Of course, upon reading those objections, I knew that when the train staff objections reached the hearing and commission level, the lawyers and lobbyists whose clients interests are adverse to the PUC staff's recommendations will get the profoundly morally corrupt hearing officers and Commissioners to make decisions against the public interest.

The California Public Utilities Commission is rotten to the core. With the evidence available at this time, blame cannot yet be directly laid on them for the San Bruno pipeline explosion. However, it is clear that Public Utilities like PG&E have no fear of PUC inspections, reprimands or enforcement actions. That is a severe problem, making the death of the PUC employee from the department designated to help protect the public interest all the sadder.

For even better views of the blast site at the intersection of Earl Ave. and Glenview Dr., I suggest folks go to: Google Maps: Earl Avenue, San Bruno, Calif.

Follow Earl Avenue east until it dead ends into Glenview Drive.
Glenview Drive runs approximately north/south.

You can clearly see a series of asphalt patches that follows the probable location of the pipe that exploded.
The patches run along Earl Drive from west to east and end at the blast site. Note especially the large box shaped patch of asphalt directly where the blast occurred.

Be sure to use 'satellite view', with labels until you get to Earl Drive, then 'remove labels' to clearly see the series of asphalt patches.
The patches show up as slightly darker, rectangular to square, marks on the street.

Looks like a potential crime site to me.

they will do everything in there power to blame Salomone else for there irresponsible dumb own mistakes ....1956??/???? pleases they should be tried for murder

murder and gross neglegence

Lessons to be learned from the San Bruno fire: We're not ready for the overdue Big One.

ABAG/Assn. of Bay Area Governments estimate 3 hundred billion/$300,000,000,000 damage after a big quake. National and global blow to economy. Like New Orleans we may never recover...........

1. San Bruno(and other towns): No water???? Where were the cisterns??? What would have happened if water was available right away??? How come the press ain't asking about it? San Fran has cisterns at intersections . . . the big circles with paving stones instead of asphalt. Also, every house in earthquake zones should have a cistern(1500 gals?) If not for fire... for survival --- you can't help millions of people at once in the days after an earthquake. This is a shovel ready project, and a better investment than green tech !

2. Big pay/pensions/early retirement for firemen and police = not enough firemen and police. What do you do when the Big One hits and you can't call for mutual aid because --every-- town has fires. Plz don't drag out the danger arg... public safety is not even in the top 10 most dangerous jobs... many in the top 10 pay 30-40k. If we paid by danger cellphone tower workers would be getting 20x the salary of a public safety worker.

3. How come we don't have volunteer / auxiliary fire departments... and/or cross trained police-fire departments(like sunnyvale). Also some cities just give away old fire trucks......... maybe they ought to store them in the city corporation yard... just in case.

4. Earthquake retrofit is proceeding at a snails pace. . . except for Berkeley, which also has a foreign policy. Santa Clara is spending a billion dollars on a new football stadium and is dead last on retrofit . . . 2-3% per ABAG. Again this is shovel ready and helps construction ... which is really hurting. Let's not be the next Haiti.

5. In general there's a lot money wasting going on instead of focusing on prepping for disasters. Like a 1/2 billion bart - oakland airport tram for a 3 mile trip? $170,000,000/per mile??? Coulda, woulda, shoulda doesn't cut it.

***We're in Katrina mode... all the predictions and preventions are known... little is happening.

dixi.

As most people know man made matierials have a life span. For example I am replacing all my plumbing in my 60 yr old home. PGnE should do the same especially since many eartquakes plaque the bay area especially a big one about 15yrs ago. We are not a "bunch of morons" PGnE. try some modern plastic tubing it works great I hear!

The reports of a gas smell weeks before the explosion may or may not be relevant. Sulfur dioxide is added to natural gas as a warning sign because natural gas has no smell but it may be added anywhere in the gas system and not necessarily added to gas that is sent long distance in high pressure gas pipes. It may be added by the utility prior to being sent to the end user. There are several reasons for this. Sulfur dioxide dissipates over time, is corrosive to some materials and dilutes the gas.


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