With a thunderous roar heard for miles, a natural gas line explosion ripped through a San Bruno neighborhood Thursday evening, sending up a geyser of fire that killed at least one person and injured more than 20 others, and igniting a blaze that destroyed 53 homes and damaged 120 more, authorities said.
The wind-whipped blaze leaped from structure to structure in the neighborhood near Skyline Boulevard and Sneath Lane, west of Interstate 280, raging unabated for almost an hour as emergency crews rushed in and residents streamed out.
The central ball of fire, fed by the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. gas line, raged past nightfall before abating. By then, houses on several blocks and thick stands of trees were engulfed in flames.
Power was cut off to the area, and the only light came from emergency vehicles and the smoldering houses. Firefighting planes roared overhead, dumping retardant onto the blazes, and the scene took on a chaotic tone as neighbors desperately searched for help and for each other.
San Bruno officials said the explosion happened near or in Glenview Park, just east of Skyline and north of San Bruno Avenue. A huge crater was left in the street at the heart of the explosion.
“A terrible, terrible tragedy has fallen on our city,” Mayor Jim Ruane said.
“Say a special prayer for those people,” Ruane said. “This is going to be a long haul for this city.”
Millbrae Fire Chief Dennis Haag said more than 100 people were in evacuation centers. Firefighters had not been able to get into the area to search for people, he said.
“We could not get close to the line,” Haag said late Thursday night. “We are still not able to access the area fully.”
The heaviest damage was on the fire’s western flank, he said.
Omar Naber and his mother, Lana Naber, were in their home on Vermont Way, a couple of blocks north, when the house shook violently about 6:15 p.m.
“I thought it was the biggest earthquake ever,” he said.
Injured in hospitals
Deputy San Mateo County Coroner April Florent said “there are deaths, but we do not have a number right now.” She said it would take awhile to compile a count because investigators must go from house to house.
Fifteen people were being treated at Kaiser Medical Center in South San Francisco for burns, smoke inhalation and other injuries, spokeswoman Stacey Wagner said. Some critically burned patients had been transferred earlier to St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, she said. Three patients went to Seton Medical Center in Daly City.
Five injured people were taken to San Francisco General Hospital. Spokeswoman Rachael Kagan said three were in critical condition – a man in his fifties and a woman in her eighties, both suffering from burn injuries, and a woman in her eighties being treated for smoke inhalation.
A woman in her sixties was in serious condition with smoke inhalation, and the fifth victim was in good condition, Kagan said.
PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said one of the utility’s natural gas transmission lines ruptured. The reason for the rupture is unknown, he said.
“If it is ultimately determined that we were responsible for the cause of this incident, we will take accountability,” Smith said. “Our thoughts go out to everyone affected by this terrible situation.”
Abelardo Vega, 34, of Daly City was at a church service nearby and came to check on a friend in the neighborhood when the blast happened. He couldn’t reach the friend but got his cell phone’s voice-mail message.
“Thanks for your concern,” the message said. “My house did catch on f- fire. Luckily, none of my family got hurt. They’re all OK. … I lost my house.”
Flames up to 300 feet high
Joe Simpson, who lives a half-mile from the explosion, said the blast had shaken his house like an earthquake. “I felt it as much as I heard it,” he said.
As night fell, Simpson said he had a startling view of the fire geyser from his backyard, estimating the flames were shooting 200 to 300 feet high.
California Emergency Management Agency spokesman Kelly Huston said the official count by about 10 p.m. was 120 homes damaged and 53 structures destroyed. The fire was 50 percent contained, he said, and it consumed a 10-acre area. Mutual aid came from many agencies throughout the Bay Area.
‘It was so loud’
“Apparently the explosion was so catastrophic it knocked out power and water lines, which complicated the firefighting effort,” he said. “Some units are having to shuttle water into the area.”
David Pinochi, who lives on Crestmoor Drive a quarter-mile away from the explosion, was evacuated as large bits of ash rained down. Firefighters marked houses with a large “X” after they evacuated families.
“I’ve loaded up my dogs, and I’m getting ready to go,” said Pinochi, who ran to get home to check on his children, ages 10, 12 and 16. All were safe. “I took my Niner autographed stuff and packed it up. I’m hoping for the best.”
Ed Hornung, who also was evacuating, said, “It was so loud, it could have been a nuclear explosion.”
Emergency shelter set up
A shelter for residents was established at a San Bruno Parks and Recreation Department center.
Sheriff’s deputies and police began evacuating residents near the fireball within minutes, pounding on doors as the flames raged nearby. They went door to door, ordering people out of their houses as their colleagues set up equipment mere feet away to battle the flames.
Naber and his mother, in their house on Vermont Avenue, rushed for the front door after they heard the explosion and tried to open it, but the door handle was too hot. He ran to his room, grabbed his car keys and fled the house with his mother through another exit.
Running out of the heat
As they ran to the car, which was parked on the street, they could see a fireball. The heat was so intense, it burned the hair off his arms, he said as he stood in shock with his mother on Skyline.
“It’s really sad for all those residents, for all the people who were on top of the explosion,” Naber said.
Leigh Bishop, staff pastor at Church of the Highlands in San Bruno, was standing in the parking lot preparing for a night meeting when the blast ripped into the sky.
“It was absolutely frightening,” Bishop said. “A huge yellowing billow of flame. I thought it was right behind our church building and ran in to pull the fire alarm and get everyone out of the church.”
He realized it was about three-fourths of a mile away.
“The initial explosion was just deafening,” Bishop said.
City Manager Connie Jackson asked all residents of the area to call a hot line at (650) 616-7180. Authorities are trying to account for all residents.
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