Friday, September 10, 2010

Four confirmed dead, 50-plus injured in California gas pipeline blast

SAN BRUNO, Calif. - Much of the nation on Thursday evening, Sept. 9, was watching the first game of the NFL season, pitting the New Orleans Saints against the Minnesota Vikings in a repeat of last winter’s Super Bowl. It was the biggest audience for an NFL game in 13 years.

When the blast occurred in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno, it was about 6:30 p.m. on the West Coast, 8:30 p.m. in the New Orleans Superdome, where the game was being played.

By the next morning, all that was left of some houses in the neighborhood were smoldering ruins. Firemen were still dealing with hot spots.

The gas line that ruptured, sending a towering fireball through the neighborhood, killing at least four people, was a 62-year-old, 30-inch natural gas transmission line belonging to Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). The line was an intrastate line under the regulatory jurisdiction of the California Public Utilities Commission.

Fire department and other emergency responders were at the scene in minutes, but the explosion that occurred when the line erupted in flames had severed local water lines. Fire department responders had to tap into hydrants two miles away and lay hose to the site of the blaze. The heat was so intense that it melted asphalt and glass windows. Four firefighters suffered minor smoke inhalation injuries and were treated and released.

By Friday evening, local, state and federal officials, along with PG&E responders, were trying to determine what led to the blast.

Under the Pipeline Safety Act of 2002, pipelines like the one that exploded in San Bruno were to undergo a baseline inspection within five years if in populated areas, and within 10 years if in unpopulated areas. By Friday evening, PG&E was still trying to determine if it had met that requirement.

The 46-mile PG&E pipeline transports gas from Santa Clara County, Calif., to San Francisco. Ironically, one of the reported fatalities was a 44-year old woman who lived at ground zero and worked at the California PUC, which had regulatory jurisdiction over the line that exploded. Her 13-year-old daughter was also reportedly killed in the initial blast.

"It was pretty devastating," Fire Chief Dennis Haag said. "It looks like a moonscape in some areas."

At least 50 people were injured, with three suffering critical burns in the explosion that left a giant crater and laid waste to dozens of 1960s-era homes in the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Some residents said they smelled gas in the neighborhood over the past several weeks, and had reported it to PG&E. They said PG&E employees had come out to look around but left without finding or doing anything.

The utility said it was checking its records for the complaints, but added that none of its crews were at work on the line on Sept. 9, the day the rupture, explosion and fire occurred.

Haag said crews walked through the neighborhood Friday and revised the damage estimate to 38 structures destroyed and seven significantly damaged. Dozens of other homes suffered less severe damage.

Although the pipeline is under state jurisdiction, a four-person team from the National Transportation Safety Board is at the site conducting an investigation. The NTSB normally takes 12 to 18 months to study an accident before releasing a report of its findings with recommendations.

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