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First responders to San Bruno gas explosion describe fiery scene

September 14, 2010 |  2:41 pm

The San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion set off a fire that flared to 100 feet high at times and was so fierce that it kept police and firefighters from checking on homes near the blast. The blaze was so hot and so loud, several said Tuesday, it was like nothing they had seen.

"This was blowing out like you wouldn't believe," said San Bruno Fire Capt. Bill Forester, who, like many of the first emergency personnel to arrive on the scene, initially feared that an airplane had crashed into the hilly Crestmoor neighborhood near San Francisco International Airport. "It was a high-pitched screaming sound. It was, quite honestly, pretty scary."

About a dozen firefighters and police officers, as well as San Bruno's police and fire chiefs, spoke about Thursday's explosion, which drew 200 emergency personnel, killed at least four people, left three missing, consumed 37 homes and substantially damaged 19 others. Neil Telford, the police chief, said families evacuated from 321 homes had returned to "some sort of normalcy."

"We were met with a wall of fire," said Ron Carlino, a South San Francisco police officer who responded to the scene. The heat was intense, he said, "beyond anything I could describe."

Standing before a backdrop of ladder trucks, fire engines and police cars, the firefighters and police officers spoke of a tight-knit community that responded quickly to the disaster, with off-duty emergency personnel racing from back-to-school nights and baseball games.

Police Officer Scott Rogge, who said he has lived in the area for 35 years, praised the way the community pulled together. "We had everyday people helping us," he said. "Those are the true heroes, the people in the community."

As soon as the alarms sounded at Station 52 on Thursday evening, Forester said, "we looked out the back door and we could see a fireball and smoke up there in the neighborhood." Wounded residents started to arrive on foot at the station, which is a third of a mile from the blast site, and firefighters hailed residents to drive victims to nearby hospitals.

Firefighters arrived at the fire to find a chaotic scene with scores of homes engulfed in flames and burned residents fleeing. "We knew this was something very big and serious," Forester said, saying the sound of the spewing gas fire sounded like a jet engine. "We weren't sure what we had."

When firefighters hooked into the hydrants, they found them dry; the blast had destroyed the water main. "It's a sinking feeling," Forester said.

Firefighters used up the water in their engines and then set up relays to pump water in from nearby hydrants. "We were as close as we could get. There were citizens helping us drag fire hose. And it was all hands on deck," Forester said.

-- John Hoeffel in San Bruno

Photo:Crews erect a power pole Sunday at Claremont and Glenview drives as rebuilding begins at the site of the gas line explosion. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times