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San Bruno authorities search for 2 people believed missing; PG&E says gas line was inspected last year

September 11, 2010 |  1:11 pm

Investigators comb scene of fatal gas pipeline blastAuthorities are searching for two people who remain unaccounted for in the thunderous explosion that left four people dead in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno, officials said Saturday.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) confirmed that authorities had received reports of two residents who have not yet been accounted for. Authorities were trying to determine whether the two were present at the scene when the explosion occurred or whether they were away.

Officials provided no additional information about the two people believed to be missing.

Meanwhile, officials of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which owns the natural-gas pipeline suspected in Thursday's explosion, said the line had been inspected last year.

"We did the whole thing," said PG&E President Christopher Johns.

Residents said they had reported the smell of natural gas in the neighborhood in the days before the explosion. But Johns said the utility has so far found no record that anyone had complained about smelling gas in the San Bruno neighborhood.

The utility has already combed through two-thirds of the consumer calls between Sept. 1 and Sept. 9, the day of the blast, he said.

In addition, Johns said, there was no record of crews responding to the area.

The utility is now re-inspecting all three natural-gas transmission lines in the San Francisco peninsula, said Johns, who also toured the disaster site.

"It's heart-wrenching," Johns said.

The pipeline was installed in 1956, officials said. But even though the structure is more than 50 years old, experts said the critical issue was how it had been maintained.

"Just like with an old airplane, the key is maintenance," said Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who noted that lines of 50 years or more of age are not uncommon.

While the safety board's final report may take a year or more to complete, Hart said any findings that merit immediate action would be acted on.

"If we see things that need urgent attention, we're going to want to get our recommendations on that," Hart said.

Boxer said officials would push for "robust inspections" of natural-gas lines that pass through residential neighborhoods. The explosion, she said, raised a lot of safety questions.

"We can't wait until every single detail of what caused it" is revealed, Boxer said.

It is unlikely, city officials said, that residents would be allowed to return to their homes Saturday. Officials are still trying to ensure that the area is safe and that services are restored.

-- John Hoeffel

Photo: Workers look at section of gas pipe. L.A. Times