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Scene of horror: San Bruno neighborhood destroyed by gas-line inferno

 | Published on 9/10/2010


A catastrophic fire fueled by a broken 16- to 24-inch PG&E gas line ripped through a San Bruno neighborhood last night, destroying 53 homes and damaging 120 with a wide swath of towering flames, critically burning residents and causing massive evacuations.

San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said there were two fatalities confirmed and at least four people were rushed to local burn centers in critical condition. A tremendous effort went into containing the blaze that sent flames as high as 60 feet into the air as they jumped from house to house incinerating everything in its path. Firefighters from across the county and federal and state emergency officials descended on the scene to stop the horrific inferno and save what was still standing and ensure the safety of fearful residents. At one point, entire blocks of homes were engulfed in flames and the firefighting effort was hindered by a lack of water since the gas line blew out out the water line.

City officials were suddenly put into triage mode and said the fire and its destruction was devastating.

“We know these people. They are friends of ours,” said San Bruno Councilman Ken Ibarra.

Ibarra said there are at least five families he knows personally in the area whose houses, he had no doubt, were gone. Their whereabouts, and well-being, were unknown to Ibarra.

Ibarra was in lower San Bruno when he heard what was a loud noise, distinctly different from that of an airplane taking off.

“We looked. It was loud enough that we knew where to look. Within seconds, plumes of smoke,” he said.

The booming explosion happened at 6:12 p.m. and the immediate, intense and immense fire that accompanied it caused emergency dispatchers to initially report that a large plane had crashed since the Glenview neighborhood south of Sneath Lane and east of Skyline Boulevard is in the flight path of San Francisco International Airport.

Late last night, the 10-acre fire was estimated to be 50 percent contained and Pacific Gas and Electric acknowledged the ruptured gas transmission line was theirs.

“Though a cause has yet to be determined, we know that a PG&E gas transmission line was ruptured,” according to a prepared statement. “If it is ultimately determined that we were responsible for the cause of the incident, we will take accountability.”

The California Public Utilities Commission is investigating the incident and Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado declared a state of emergency last night. As acting governor, Maldonado will visit San Bruno today, according to Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo. Both Hill and state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, offered support for the victims and assurances state resources will be available to the city.

“I have been assured that all available state emergency resources are deployed in San Bruno, including [the California Emergency Management Agency] and Cal Fire,” Yee said. “... My office will ensure that the affected families receive the state and local assistance they need to recoup and recover from this tragedy. In the days and weeks ahead, a thorough investigation will be conducted, but tonight our attention is on stopping any further devastation and helping this neighborhood and community.”

An emergency office has been set up at City Hall, Ibarra said. In addition, a number of churches have called offering help. Ibarra, a longtime member of Lions Club International, noted a request has been put in for an emergency $10,000 donation to start covering aid costs.

“When it comes to helping people, we’ll be ready,” he said.

Councilwoman Irene O’Connell echoed Ibarra’s concerns. Her son, as was Mayor Jim Ruane, went to the scene offering help.

A number of years ago, after attending an emergency training conference, O’Connell worked with city staff to ensure paperwork was in place should an emergency of this magnitude occur. If enough damage is done, the city can apply for state or federal aid for not only itself but for the residents who lost everything. Those applications cannot be made until after the extent of the damage is known. However, when that time comes, San Bruno is in a place to request the help quickly, she said.

The American Red Cross established an emergency shelter at the Veterans Memorial Recreation Center, located at 251 City Park Way at Crystal Springs Road, according to spokeswoman Melanie Finke. About 100 people were already at the shelter as of 8:15 p.m., she said. Officials from the Peninsula Humane Society were also on hand to assist pet owners.

An evacuation shelter was established at the Bayhill Shopping Center at San Bruno and Cherry avenues and some evacuees opted to go there.

Cots, blankets, food, water and basic health services were available. Arrangements are also being made to bring in crisis counselors to provide emotional support.

“It is difficult at this point to know how many people are truly affected,” Finke said.

San Mateo Union High School District Officials were working last night to secure support services that will be available at Capuchino High School as it opens Friday morning, said Superintendent Scott Laurence. In addition, the district is hoping to help people in any way it can. Those who need help from the district are asked to call 588-2201. Elementary schools in the city will be closed today. City officials are also working on establishing an emergency hotline.