Decades-old gas line may have fed San Bruno explosion, fire

Four people killed, dozens of homes destroyed in Thursday evening explosion, fire

A decades-old gas main may have fed the explosion and fire Thursday that destroyed homes and killed or injured residents of the Crestmoor Canyon area of San Bruno.

A 30-inch diameter gas pipe is the likely culprit behind the massive explosion that rocked the community at 6:15 p.m. Thursday, although crews have not been able to get close enough to the source to determine the exact cause, PG&E President Chris Johns said this morning.

Over the coming weeks, the National Transportation Safety Board will conduct an independent investigation into the explosion. Johns said PG&E is "committed to work with them."

He hazarded a guess that the pipe could be as old as 50 years, but said he would need to defer to records to confirm its age.

State and local elected officials joined the San Bruno police and fire chiefs Friday morning (Sept. 10) at a press conference to answer questions as the smoke cleared from smoldering wreckage.

Acting as the state leader while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is conducting business in Asia, Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado declared the fire-ravaged area an emergency disaster Thursday night, opening up state resources to assist in the recovery effort.

Maldonado confirmed that the fire has charred 15 acres of land, and is still only 75 percent contained, up from 50 percent contained overnight.

The blaze ripped across the San Bruno neighborhood, hopping from home to home, destroying 38 structures and significantly damaging seven others.

Reports from Thursday night indicated some 120 homes had been damaged. Fire chief Dennis Haag confirmed today that dozens of homes sustained damage, as was determined by an aerial survey of the area.

"Without warning, many of these people's lives have been changed forever and my deepest prayers go out to everyone," Maldonado said.

The extent of property losses, which insurance adjusters are estimating could reach the tens of millions, is shadowed only by the loss of human life: four people were confirmed dead by the San Mateo County coroner's office this morning.

A total of 52 victims were treated at area hospitals, with four people transferred to a burn center in San Francisco -- three of those patients were critically burned.

Four firefighters suffered from smoke inhalation at the start of the fire, which was a six-alarm blaze battled by local, county and state emergency response teams. Those firefighters were transported to a local hospital and released two hours later, Haag said.

Walking the site in the daylight this morning, Haag said the extent of the damage was some of the worst he's seen during his career.

"It looks like a moonscape in some areas," he said.

A 30-inch diameter gas pipe is the likely culprit behind the massive explosion that rocked the community at 6:15 p.m. Thursday, although crews have not been able to get close enough to the source to determine the exact cause, PG&E President Chris Johns said this morning.

Over the coming weeks, the National Transportation Safety Board will conduct an independent investigation into the explosion, and Johns said that PG&E is "committed to work with them."

He hazarded a guess that the pipe could be as old as 50 years, but said he would need to defer to records to confirm its age.

Despite the enormous losses, many of the speakers expressed gratitude in the way emergency responders and members of the community came together to quickly respond to the crisis.

"As devastating as this was, it could have been so much worse in my opinion," Haag said. "We made a terrific effort in stopping the fires in the way we did."

More than 60 pieces of equipment were deployed in the response, including 21 local fire engines, 18 Cal Fire engines, 20 California Emergency Management Agency vehicles, and four air tankers, which were dispatched to the scene immediately Thursday night, Maldonado said.

Thirty more fire engines are expected to arrive at the scene today.

Beyond the immediate response, officials are already orchestrating plans to assist the hundreds of affected individuals in the long term.

"You've heard the numbers, but what we have to deal with in the immediate future is the stress, the anxiety, the uncertainness in the minds of those that have been affected," San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said.

The immediate emergency designation by Maldonado allows for certain state funding to flow into the charred community, but U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier said that federal officials were working to secure additional federal emergency funds.

Seeking a Federal Emergency Management Agency designation means that residents will benefit from an array of services, including housing, medical care, small business loans and assistance in filing insurance claims, Speier said.

As much as money is needed to rebuild the community, the strength of the shell-shocked community has been powering efforts so far.

"It was rather gut-wrenching to me that these strangers and these individuals would come out in the middle of the night ... to help their fellow neighbors," said Sen. Leland Yee, whose district includes San Bruno.

Yee, who recalled the devastation of the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, said that his office was committed "to doing whatever we can to help this city and this county rebound."

"It's very tight-knit, generations of families have lived here forever. We will all come together," Speier said. "We will once again see San Bruno thriving."

Assemblyman Jerry Hill was also on hand this morning, adding that "this community came together from a public safety stand point, and is coming together now from a personal standpoint."

Hill said, "It has been a tough struggle, but this city will rise again through this and it will be stronger than ever."

According to City Manager Connie Jackson, some blocks were harder hit than others. The damage was the most serious on the 1600 and 1700 blocks of Claremont Drive; the 900 block of Glenview Drive; the 1700 block of Earl Avenue; the 1100 block of Fairmont Drive; and the 2700 block of Concord Way.

Significant sections of the neighborhood have been deemed safe for residents to return to, said Jackson, who stressed that evacuated residents should still check in at Veterans Memorial Recreation Center at 251 City Park Way.

Police are treating the entire area as a crime scene to preserve the evidence until investigators can access the rubble and take a closer look at the ruptured gas line, police Chief Neil Telford said.

PG&E president Chris Johns said that their crews are working to secure the area and restore gas and electricity service to hundreds of customers who lost power after the explosion.

More than 40 PG&E members worked overnight to survey the integrity of the lines throughout the surrounding neighborhoods and ensure the safety of residents.

As of 6 a.m., 700 electricity customers and 300 gas customers were experiencing a lack of service. Johns estimated that 300 electricity customers would have power restored by noon today, and that the delay was due to the labor-intensive nature of the restoration.

"We're having to walk block-by-block, house-by-house to establish service," he said.

It has yet to be determined whether PG&E is to blame for the disaster, but Johns said in the meantime the company is committed to providing the community with resources and relief, and is working with the American Red Cross to do so.

"We're really saddened and sorry about this tragedy," Johns said.

Related stories:

Four confirmed deaths from San Bruno fire

Local firefighters help out in San Bruno

Silicon Valley Community Foundation creates emergency fund

— Bay City News Service

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Like this comment
Posted by arlene campbell
a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2010 at 12:22 pm

hiya i cant beleive such stuff happened i never heard of a gas pipe rupturing and blowing up a neighborhood .people must not have had a chance under such drastic circumstances this is a unusual incident i hope that all will b well and can recover from such a drastic fire and blow up from a ruptured gas main and that everyone can help out

Like this comment
Posted by lamanley
a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2010 at 1:45 pm

This is, sadly, not an extremely unusual incidence of a gas line exploding. I recall similar tragedies over the past several decades in Washington State and Texas, and other states as well. I live in SE Oregon, where a new natural gas pipeline is now being constructed for some 600 miles, into the state of Wyoming. When I learned of this project these previous disasters popped right up in my mind.

My question is, why are these pipelines running right through a neighborhood of homes and families? --They must have been built when that land was vacant, and then homes were built over them. Who developed that idea, and why in the world was it PERMITTED? --Let me guess: The almighty $$$$$$.

The pipeline "may be 50 years old". What does that mean? That this was, then, to be expected? That maintenance and/or refurbishing is the normal procedure? Is that possible after the area is built up and sold to unsuspecting families?

By the way, residents where I live were merely informed of the new project here, NOT ASKED. As for this immediate area, the project is NOT NEAR human beings. EPA and anthropological safeguard officials are on-site at all times. The some 600 workers temporarily housed here in our little town of Lakeview OR 97630 have been a good source of info regarding the ways required procedures are being enforced. We don't have to rely on the construction co.'s "progress report" in our weekly newspaper, thank goodness --of course, there are no guarantees, anyway.

There's a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes as I write this. Oh, my God; I do so wish your tragedy, and others like it, could have been avoided. Please know that people everywhere are hoping for you recovery and peace.
Linda-Anne Manley

Like this comment
Posted by Sethro
a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Just about 60 seconds before the pipeline burst, there was a very small earthquake that hit. It was only 1.1 mag. but it was located only 2000 feet deep and a mile and a half west of the fire (very shallow and close by, but too deep and far away to be the blast itself).

Web Link

Kinda scary that such a tiny earthquake can set off a cracked pipe.

Like this comment
Posted by Wilson
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2010 at 5:02 pm

> A 30-inch diameter gas pipe is the likely culprit
> behind the massive explosion that rocked the community at
> 6:15 p.m. Thursday,

As proposed in the previous posting, there seems to have been Magnitude 1.1 earthquake just a couple of minutes before the blast--

Web Link
Magnitude: 1.1
Date-Time: Friday, September 10, 2010 at 01:11:12 UTC
Thursday, September 09, 2010 at 06:11:12 PM at epicenter
Location: 37.623°N, 122.442°W
Depth: 0 km (~0 mile) (poorly constrained)


Distances: 1 km (1 miles) WSW (258°) from San Bruno, CA

If this is true, and PG&E claims that it is "not responsible", then this will be a $20-$30M disaster that might leave some/all of the homeowners without adequate compensation to rebuild.

This situation also begs the question, is there anyway to pipe gas into a community so that if a trunk line (like this 30-inch pipe) is sheared/crumpled by an earthquake, the likelihood of an explosion is reduced?

Even if pipes are new, as the magnitude of the quake increases, the ability of the pipe to withstand the forces being imposed on in decrease.

Like this comment
Posted by Reluctant Siliconer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 10, 2010 at 5:17 pm

What does this mean about preparing for the Big One? Maybe the point won't be to have supplies on hand, but to have a quick escape route out of the area before the inevitable fire storm that will follow the earthquake. It may make the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire look like a block party.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2010 at 5:33 pm

If the claims that there was a persistent gas smell days before this awful event, it may not matter about the earthquake. PG&E loves to abdicate responsibility for problems, claiming they're not responsible for "acts of God" but if it was leaking prior to the small earthquake, they would likely bear some of the responsibility. The pipe was allegedly 62 years old & could've been replaced sooner.

Like this comment
Posted by leak
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Channel 7 news reported last night that residents had complained about a gas smell in the air for more than 1 week. PG&E had sent crews out to look for it, but apparently not very effectively.

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 10, 2010 at 8:39 pm

How long will the investigation take?

Like this comment
Posted by 1.1 quake was the pipeline burp
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Sep 10, 2010 at 9:32 pm

There was no earthquake on the nearby San Andreas Fault (Skyline Blvd.) Just look at the USGS google maps of the 1.1 quake, it was the very location of the pipeline which ruptured an hour later.
With low frequency fault slip tremors commonplace (the SAF trace is just a few hundred feet uphill of this residential area) , this tragic event will not be the first in earthquake country.
Quick shut off mechanisms when abnormal pressure drops on these aged main lines are the most cost effective mechanisms for PG&E and So Cal Edison to mitigate collateral damage.
While replacing susceptible steel transmission lines may be a long term goal, we need to be able to more quickly shut down these aged lines when they inevitably rupture.
All readers should have a gas meter shutoff wrench at their own residence to prepare when the next big quake hits the Bay Area. It's not an if, but when. So be prepared.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 11, 2010 at 5:07 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

There may have been automatic sectionalizing valves, but the "Line pack" the gas still in he pipe between valves, will still vent, and this is what fed the flames initially.

Like this comment
Posted by Reluctant Siliconer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 11, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Sharon, the investigation may take up to a year.

Like this comment
Posted by Alan
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 12, 2010 at 6:45 am

Regarding the 1.1 earthquake.

Thursday, September 09, 2010 at 06:11:12 PM at epicenter

I've not seen an exact time for the fire, but one article said "a little after 6 PM", so isn't this 1.1 earthquake like the gas main rupturing?

Sometimes the explosions in the quarry near Cupertino register at 2.0 earthquakes.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm - to Alan
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 12, 2010 at 11:47 am

Alan, are you asking if the earthquake was actually the pipeline rupturing, rather than there being an earthquake, then a rupture?

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 12, 2010 at 9:35 pm

I heard someone on the news tonight say there are no recorded complaints of a gas smell --

All of you who have smelled gas around Bowdoin Park, need to call PA Utilities AND PG&E and report the smell. And send emails so you leave a trail -- if you do, they won't ignore it now.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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