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California Gas Blast 'Looked Like Hell On Earth'

Flames from a massive fire are seen in a residential neighborhood September 9, 2010 in San Bruno, California. A massive explosion rocked a neighborhood near San Francisco International Airport.
Justin Sullivan
Flames from a massive fire are seen in a residential neighborhood September 9, 2010 in San Bruno, California. A massive explosion rocked a neighborhood near San Francisco International Airport.

Firefighters were still putting out spot fires Friday after a massive explosion from a ruptured natural gas line killed at least four people and damaged or destroyed more than 170 homes south of San Francisco.

The explosion in San Bruno, Calif., left a giant crater and shot a tower of fire into the air Thursday, sending residents fleeing for safety and rushing to get belongings out of burning homes, witnesses said. Hundreds of people evacuated their homes and spent the night in a shelter.

Flames reaching as high as 100 feet tore across several suburban blocks, leaving some in total ruins and reducing parked automobiles to burned-out hulks. San Bruno Fire Chief Dennis Hagg said 53 homes were destroyed and that an additional 120 were damaged.

San Mateo Senior Deputy Coroner Michelle Rippy said Friday that officials at the scene confirmed at least four deaths. Authorities said there could be other casualties but the fire and darkness blocked them from checking.

"It's going to take us until at least tomorrow into the afternoon to do a full search," Haag said late Thursday.

Victims suffering from serious burns began arriving at Bay Area hospitals shortly after the blast. An estimate of the number of injured wasn't immediately available. Hospitals reported receiving about 20 injured patients — several of whom were in critical condition — and they anticipated getting more.

"This is a terrible tragedy," said San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane. "This is going to be a long haul for the city and all of our residents for a number of weeks to come. I would ask anyone who sees this broadcast tonight to say a special prayer for those people. "

The National Transportation Safety Board, whose duties include investigating pipeline accidents, said Friday that it has sent a four-member team to San Bruno to look into the disaster.

Pacific Gas and Electric, the local utility company, confirmed that a broken gas line triggered the blast around 6 p.m. PT, but they weren't sure how. More than a hundred firefighters from throughout the San Francisco Bay Area struggled against the blaze, which was 50 percent contained late Thursday, said Jay Allen, spokesman for the California Emergency Management Agency. By Friday morning, fire crews were flooding burned-out homes with water to prevent the rubble from reigniting.

San Bruno Fire Capt. Charlie Barringer said the neighborhood was engulfed by the time firefighters arrived, even though the fire station was only a few blocks away. He said the blast took out the entire water system, forcing firefighters to pump water from more than two miles away.

Firefighters initially had trouble getting close enough to the ruptured gas line to shut it down because of the flames, Haag said.

Residents Bob Pellegrini and his brother Ed tried to escape out their front door immediately after the blast, but it was too hot. Instead, they ran out the back door and up a hill. It felt like a blowtorch on the back of their necks as they escaped, the brothers told The Oakland Times.

"It looked like hell on earth. I have never seen a ball of fire that huge," Bob Pellegrini said.

Then they saw that their house and four cars had been destroyed in the fire.

"I have nothing. Everything is gone. We're homeless," Ed said.

At a nearby temporary shelter for victims of the blast set up by the Red Cross, KQED reporter Peter Jon Schuler said about 100 people had signed in so that friends and relatives would know their whereabouts. He said about 12 people stayed overnight at the shelter, where volunteers were sorting clothes and preparing food for anyone in need.

California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, acting governor while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visits Asia on a trade mission, declared a state of emergency in San Mateo County. The declaration frees up funds to help with firefighting costs.

"If it is ultimately determined that we were responsible for the cause of the incident, we will take accountability," Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said in an e-mailed statement Thursday evening.

But later Thursday, the company's president, Christopher Johns, said he didn't know what sparked the explosion.

"I don't have any details about if there was any work going on," Johns told KTVU-TV. "That will be part of the investigation as we go forward."

Scott Shafer of KQED reported that the neighborhood is beneath a flight path to and from San Francisco International Airport and that a number of witnesses initially thought a plane had crashed.

"Several people thought that the magnitude of the explosion and the size of the flames could only mean that it was an airplane that had gone down," he said.

Jane Porcelli, 62, said she lives on a hill above where the fire was centered. She said she thought she heard a plane overhead with a struggling engine. "And then you heard this bang. And everything shook except the floor, so we knew it wasn't an earthquake," Porcelli said. "I feel helpless that I can't do anything. I just gotta sit by and watch."

Judy and Frank Serrsseque were walking down a hill away from the flames with a makeshift wagon carrying important documents, medication and three cats.

Judy Serrsseque said she heard an explosion, saw that fire was headed toward their home and knew they had to leave. As they fled, they said, they saw people burned and people struggling to get their things out of burning houses.

"We got everything together, and we just got out," Judy Serrsseque said. "Mostly we're wondering if we have a house to go back to."