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Gas smell at evacuated San Bruno school may have come from heating system

September 16, 2010 | 11:45 am

Utility workers and fire officials said the gas smell that prompted the evacuation of a San Bruno elementary school may have come from the school's heating system, which was turned on for the first time Thursday morning.

About 270 students and 20 staff at Portola Elementary in San Bruno were evacuated Thursday morning after a parent smelled gas in the courtyard of the low-slung school, which is less than a mile from where a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pipeline exploded a week ago.

"This is horrible. Poor kids.This whole area, they're on needles and pins. It's a good thing they got them out of here," said Paula Gregoire, who was picking up her 4-year-old niece.

The blast and fire killed at least four people, ruined 56 homes and has left the San Bruno community jittery about the natural gas transmission lines that pass through the city.

PG&E crews responding to the scene found no evidence of a gas leak but called in additional workers to check the school. "We are encouraging folks to maintain a safe distance," said Jeff Smith, a spokesman for the utility. The school is about a fifth of a mile from a gas transmission line, according to federal maps, but not the same one that blew up last week.

PG&E employees detected low levels of carbon monoxide, which could have come from a buildup and residue from the school's heating system, said Kory Raftery, a spokesman who responded to the scene. "We understand folks are concerned. We want to be here for them," said Raftery, who was doing on-scene interviews with television reporters.

Cheryl Peruchetti, a spokeswoman for the San Bruno Park School District, said school officials immediately contacted utility officials who told them to empty the school. The students and staff were bused to the nearby Parkside Intermediate School. "Everyone is safe with their teacher," she said, adding that staff and students were being sent home for the day.

The firefighters who responded to the school were from the nearby Station 52, which sent the first crews to the raging explosion. Joe Telles, a battalion chief, said the San Bruno Fire Department got a call about 9:10 a.m. from the school. He said firefighters believe the smell drifted into the courtyard from the heating unit, which is on the school's roof.

In the aftermath of the disaster, PG&E officials have stressed that anyone who smells gas should call the utility immediately. People who live in the Crestmoor neighborhood, where the pipeline ruptured, have told the media that they smelled gas in the days before the explosion, but PG&E and federal investigators have not yet found any records of such calls.

-- Maria L. LaGanga and John Hoeffel in San Bruno

Photos: Deadly gas explosion in San Bruno