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Investigators try to determine cause of San Bruno blast [Update]

September 10, 2010 |  9:16 am


At least four people were killed and 52 injured in the gas pipeline explosion and fire that rocked a San Bruno neighborhood as investigators Friday tried to determine what caused the devastating blast that left a crater in the ground and homes smoldering.

Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, serving as acting governor while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is in Asia, declared a state of emergency in the Crestmoor neighborhood and said the blaze was 75% contained after destroying 15 acres.

"We don't know what caused [the rupture]," Maldonado said in a news conference near the scene. "We will find out soon."

A total of 52 people have been hospitalized, including three with third-degree burns. Four firefighters who suffered smoke inhalation were treated and released.

Maldonado said a natural gas line ruptured about 6:24 p.m. Thursday, ripping a crater in the neighborhood and causing the blaze, which consumed 38 structures and damaged seven more.

[Updated at 1:47 p.m.: Officials said Friday in an afternoon news conference that the fire had been contained. Searchers combed through 75% of the homes destroyed by the blast, and there were no residents unaccounted for.

They will not know for certain about additional victims until they search the remaining homes, which were too hot to enter.

Millbrae Fire Chief Dennis Haag walked the neighborhood early Friday morning, counting the number of destroyed houses.

"It was pretty devastating. ... It looks like a moonscape in some areas," Haag said.

The site of the explosion is marked by a 30-foot-diameter crater filled with water. Chunks of asphalt are strewn about, and melted cars line a nearby road. Residents desperate to check on their homes and loved ones gathered Friday at a barricade outside the neighborhood.

Kevin Matsukura, 18, a freshman at Skyline College who lives within a block of the explosion, went to the barricade with his father. He said he was at home when he heard the blast and his ears began popping.

“I was just sitting in my room. It just kept getting louder. I thought it would be another earthquake,” he said. “It sounded like a plane overhead."]

Some 67 pieces of firefighting apparatuses were brought in to fight the blaze, including four air tankers that proved the most important in attacking the ferocious blaze most of the night, when  firefighters were unable to do much from the street.
Twelve trained dogs were also at the scene Friday to help in the search for bodies.

"The sun is shining over there, but there is still a dark cloud over the city of San Bruno," Mayor Jim Ruane said.

Pacific Gas & Electric officials said Friday they were investigating reports that customers complained of a natural gas odor before the deadly explosion.

They also said the damaged section of the 30-inch steel gas pipeline has been isolated and the gas flow turned off, and crews planned to walk the neighborhood Friday to survey the damage and check the gas transmission system.

Company officials said they would cooperate fully with federal, state and local agencies to identify the cause of Thursday's explosion. They did not say, however, whether the pipeline caused the  explosion.

“That will be part of the ongoing investigation. [The National Transportation Safety Board] will be conducting a comprehensive investigation and we will be cooperating fully,” said Jeff Smith, a spokesman for the utility.

PG&E officials in a statement said crews are working to make the area safe, assess damage and restore service where possible.

As the sun rose Friday morning, evacuated residents anxiously tried to make their way back home – only to be turned away by barricades.

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Department and San Bruno Fire Department had set up barriers on a hill overlooking the fire, keeping out both residents and media. Through tall pine trees, smoke could be seen rising up from where dozens of homes once stood.

"People want to see if their houses burned down," said Rick Bruce, 54, a retired police officer who has lived in the neighborhood since 1980. "I was lucky to get in last night. Most people had to leave within 45 minutes, so they saw the flames but didn't know whether their house burned. … But where the fire was looks like London during the Blitz."

Bruce said he made note of the homes that were still standing and tried to alert his neighbors.

But, he said, he is also extremely concerned about the emergency response and whether it should have been better.

San Bruno Fire Department officials reported initial difficulty accessing water because the explosion had ruptured water mains.

And Bruce said that 10 minutes after the explosion, he talked to 911 dispatchers only be told emergency responders were still trying to find the site. Bruce said he called again – still unable to spot any fire, ambulance or police crews just one block from the explosion site.

"At 20 minutes, there was no fire, no police," Bruce said. "I was furious. I said, 'There's nothing! We're standing in the street looking at the biggest fire I've ever seen in my life and there's no one here.' "

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Tony Barboza and Paloma Esquivel in San Bruno and Richard Winton, Sam Quinones and Rong-Gong Lin II in Los Angeles

Photo: San Bruno Fire Capt. Charlie Barringer looks over "ground zero," where a 24-inch gas line exploded, destroying nearby homes. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Photos: Fire in San Bruno