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DSA In the News

First responders feared the worst

 | Published on 9/15/2010


A fireball that erupted Thursday night in San Bruno from a gas-main rupture sent flames 100 feet into the air accompanied by what fire Capt. Bill Forester called a high-pitched screaming from the source of the fire.

Firefighters thought a jetliner went down because of the incredible source of gas that fueled the fireball.

“The sound, the noise was deafening,” Forester said. “It sounded like a jet engine still running.”

The first call came in about the explosion at 6:12 p.m. A report of a second explosion coming out of South San Francisco made firefighters fear the worst.

“I thought we were dealing with a terrorist act,” Forester said.

It was nearly 20 minutes into fighting the fire that San Francisco International Airport reported that no planes went down.

Firefighters couldn’t determine the source of the fireball because of the incredible heat that filled the neighborhood and the chaos created by residents trying to flee the area bound by Sneath Lane, San Bruno Avenue and Skyline Boulevard.

Rescue workers initially found some residents in the neighborhood who were badly burned and attended to their needs first before setting up lines to attack the fire. The blast that tore through the Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood killed at least four people and injured more than 50 others. Thirty-seven houses were destroyed in the fire, and eight others were damaged.

When firefighters went to hook up engines to fire hydrants in the neighborhood, they discovered there was no water.

Thousands of feet of hose were connected to neighborhoods in Rollingwood and Crestmoor before the fire attack started in earnest.

“Citizens even helped drag fire line hose,” Forester said.

Smoke quickly filled the neighborhood and firefighters went door to door, sometime forcibly, to evacuate the neighborhood.

A woman with a oxygen tank trapped in her home was quickly whisked to safety.

It was a scene of chaos and fear.

“It was quite honestly pretty scary,” Forester said.

More than 400 firefighters, police officers and other public safety personnel responded to the scene from every agency in the county, surrounding counties and Cal Fire, Forester said.

Many of the fire personnel who responded were off duty and responded to the fire on their own.

State Department of Forestry Services got a bomber in the air within an hour of the explosion dumping retardant on the Crestmoor Canyon to keep the fire from spreading. Cal Fire helicopters also dumped water on roofs of homes near the fire’s epicenter.

Once hoses were connected and the scene cleared of residents, firefighters attacked the fire and determined where to draw the line, an effort that kept the entire neighborhood from being destroyed, Forester said.

John Priolo, with Engine 52 in San Bruno, saw the explosion on the news and responded to the scene from home.

He first came across the “walking wounded” near the fire station at Earl Avenue and Sneath Lane where he is stationed.

Priolo asked residents to transport some victims to the hospital before attacking the blaze. Priolo ended up at Concord Way and Fairmont Drive with Engine 52.

“We drew our lines and held them,” said Priolo, who was on the scene for 14 straight hours.

“It was the hardest thing I ever had to do. These are neighbors you see every day. It was a horrible feeling and it was hard to leave the area,” Priolo said.

South San Francisco firefighter Anthony Ottoboni was at his son’s baseball practice when he and his wife saw the explosion.

“I looked at my wife and she said ‘go,’” Ottoboni said.

Ottoboni immediately traveled toward the blast and helped connect the Glenview neighborhood with water by running about 4,000 feet of supply line over Sneath Lane into the Rollingwood neighborhood.

Central County fire Capt. Jake Pelk also responded from home.

Pelk was on his way to back-to-school night when the explosion hit.

When he arrived on scene, there was no water available to fight the blaze.

“It is a sinking feeling not to have water. You count on water being there. We are trained for this, though, so we went to Plan B,” Pelk said.

On the police side, Sgt. Michael Guldner, a swing-shift supervisor, only had six officers on duty at the time of the explosion.

Officers came from all parts of the city to set up a command post at the Econo gasoline station at San Bruno Avenue near Skyline Boulevard.

“We were overwhelmed,” Guldner said. “Dispatch was handling hundreds of calls.”

Guldner’s first act on the scene was to assist a man severely burned on his arms and legs.

“I thank God for the residents who offered help. There were doctors and paramedics who volunteered,” Guldner said. “Our first goal was to save as many lives as possible.”

The scene quickly became a multi-agency response site with dispatch taking command on one radio channel.

Police Officer Scott Rogge, who lives in San Bruno, was most impressed with how the community has come together to respond to the victims following the disaster.

“Seeing people come together with donations of food, clothing and shelter is inspiring,” said Rogge.

South San Francisco police Officer Ken Chetcuti was off duty visiting his parents in San Bruno when the explosion hit.

Chetcuti grew up in San Bruno and is acquainted with many Glenview neighborhood residents, some going back to high school.

The first person he saw on the scene was a friend of his and he immediately rushed into the neighborhood to help with the evacuation.

“I got as close to the flame as I could without getting burned. It was very, very hot. I was feeling the flame,” Chetcuti said.

South San Francisco police Lt. Ron Carlino was one of the early responders and was met with a wall of fire on Glenview Drive.

“We were left helpless,” Carlino said. “The incredible wall of fire kept us back.”

So far, the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office has confirmed four deaths and three are still missing.