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San Bruno fire chief puts explosion death toll at 6

September 10, 2010 |  4:21 am

The explosion and massive fire that ripped through San Bruno left six dead, the fire chief said Friday morning, and he expected the toll to rise as more homes are searched.

San Bruno Fire Captain Charlie Barringer stood on Glenview Drive a block above Claremont Drive about 2 a.m. and surveyed the damage as firefighters pointed their hoses at the smoldering remains of a half dozen homes.

The power was still out. Spot fires were still burning in yards near the charred remains of station wagons, the air thick and acrid. Many houses remained eerily untouched, SUVs still parked in the driveways, solar-powered garden lights burning, newspapers wrapped in plastic still lying where they were tossed on the grass Thursday morning.

Barringer has been based at the local station for the past three years, one of three firefighters on Engine 52, the first to respond to the explosion.

“I thought a 747 had landed on us,” he said. “It shook our station right to its foundation.”

Within a minute, he had sounded a four-alarm fire, he said. Soon after, he said firefighters discovered a gas line had exploded, destroying not only homes but the grid of water mains that supplied the local fire hydrants. His crew had no water to fight the fires.

 “We were overwhelmed. We had multiple neighborhoods on fire,” he said.

Barringer said the neighborhood has not had problems with gas leaks in recent years. A PG&E crew of several men with hard hats, shovels, an earth mover and two trucks was out at the corner of Claremont and Sneath Lane as he spoke, digging through the concrete, but they referred questions to a spokesman. Neighbors standing across the street claimed a gas line runs nearby, and a slight scent of gas was in the air Friday morning.

Barringer said that when his engine first responded to the explosion, the crew strung together hoses to pump water from two to three miles away. By 2 a.m., they were still using the hoses. Police and coroner’s investigators roamed the darkness with flashlights, snapping photographs, setting up road blocks with flares and saying the area was considered a crime scene.

Kathy Crouse, 61, sat on a corner in the dark with a police scanner, waiting for news. Her house on Sequoia Avenue was not damaged by the explosion, she said, but a friend who lived on Claremont fled just as her house burned, grabbing her car keys as flames singed the shirt on her back. Crouse bought her a new shirt at Kohl’s and the woman went to stay with her daughter nearby.

“She’s so in shock,” Crouse said.

Crouse works at the CVS in town, which like many businesses offered donated food to those displaced by the explosion. When she stopped by late Thursday, she said a neighbor asked her whether his house had survived. She didn’t know, and was unsure what to tell him.

Her son, a carpenter, helped other neighbors build wooden braces to stabilize the fire hoses snaking across the roads.

“All we can do is rebuild and move on,” Johnson said as he stood on Sneath overlooking Claremont, where billows of smoke rose from burned homes.

While Johnson waited, a woman who said she lived at the corner of Glenview and Earle Avenue—the epicenter of the explosion—walked by looking for her son’s girlfriend. Her son was among those badly burned by the explosion, she said—he had been home at the time, walked outside with his girlfriend and was burned. His girlfriend has been missing since.

She walked off into the darkness in the direction of her home, Johnson said.

A state official said Thursday night that 53 homes had been destroyed.

“It’s horrible,” Barringer said. “It’s real difficult for us. This is like a second neighborhood for me.”

His crew saved about 20 homes on Glenview, he said. They lost five. 

Barringer said he had worked strike teams in the Los Angeles area during past fire seasons, and was grateful to see firefighters from surrounding counties pitching in to handle the aftermath of the explosion. He pointed to a shopping plaza on the opposite hill, where officials had set up a command post.

 “We’ll be out here probably for at least a week,” he said.

As he spoke, Barringer received a radio message to return to the station to get some rest before returning to the neighborhood at about 5 a.m. Friday morning to begin a house to house search for bodies.

“I’m sure there’s going to be a few more,” he said as he left.

 --Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Photo: A firefighting helicopter flies over the massive blaze. Firefighters' efforts were hampered by winds that reportedly reached more than 30 mph. Credit: George Nikitin / Associated Press

Photos: Fire in San Bruno