A huge PG&E gas line explosion and fire rocked San Bruno Thursday night igniting dozens of homes in an instant. By morning the devastation was clear. Dozens of homes had been damaged or destroyed.
San Bruno Fire Chief Dennis Haag described the fire zone this way, "It looks like a moonscape in some areas."
The death toll stood at four Friday evening with four other people critically injured with burn wounds. The most critical were taken to the premier burn center in the Bay Area which is St. Francis in San Francisco.
Officials said late Friday that everyone was accounted for in the area.
Officials did not release victims' names, but Agustin Macedo of San Francisco told The Associated Press his 44-year-old daughter, Jacqueline Greig, and his granddaughter were killed. Reached by phone, Macedo said he was too upset to give any more information, including how he knew his family members' fate. The granddaughter's age and name weren't known. They lived in a home just yards from the initial explosion. Greig worked at the California Public Utilities Commission. Executive Director Paul Clanon only announced to staff Friday morning that Greig was missing. The pipeline involved in the explosion is under the jurisdiction of the California Public Utility Commission.
The explosion happened near Skyline Boulevard and San Bruno Avenue. People who were home at the time had no warning. Many said they had minutes if not seconds to get themselves, their loved ones and pets out before a wall of fire and a hail of asphalt rained down on their neighborhood.
Emergency officials lowered the number of destroyed homes from 53 homes to 37 home Friday. They said eight additional homes were significantly damaged and dozens more were damaged in one way or another, but still standing. Aerial pictures from the scene showed many homes gone to their foundation. Others were missing roof tops. Dozens more vehicles that were parked on the street were also destroyed. Witnesses said the cars and homes exploded from the heat from the massive fire ball.
The area damaged by the fires and explosion spread across 15 acres.
At a 6 p.m. news conference Friday, emergency responders said they been able to do a basic search of the ruins, although a few of the addresses were still too hot to get cadaver dogs inside to search for additional bodies.
On Friday morning, state officials said along with the death and critical injuries, 52 people were treated for smoke inhalation and burn wounds. Four firefighters were also treated for smoke inhalation.
Still Photographer Walks in the Ruins
A huge crater was left at the initial explosion site and a huge pipe was seen nearby on a flattened street. The crater was initially filled with water, but that water had been pumped out by early evening. That crater will be the center point of the investigation into what happened Thursday evening to cause it to explode without warning.
Marla Shelmadine, who lives on 1131 Fairmont Drive, said the blast quickly escalated down her street, destroying one house at a time in quick succession. She said she got out of her house with her two cars and her pets, and did not know if her home was destroyed or not.
Other neighbors said they saw the street rip apart and ran for their lives from a huge wall of flames. One man jumped into his car and drove through the flames. He said the explosion was followed by a hail of asphalt falling from the sky as the pipe line ripped through the street. His bumper was fried by the time he got to safety, but he was safe.
PG&E President Chris Johns said a 30-inch steel gas pipe ruptured about three feet underground. He said his crews had not been able to determine the cause of the rupture because they can't get close enough. The initial site of the blast is now a huge crater filled with water.
Johns said at a 9 a.m. news conference the company has heard news reports that some residents smelled gas in the area before the blast and had reported that to PG&E.
"Right now, we haven't got confirmation about that, but we have records that we are going back right this minute to try to confirm what exactly those phone calls look like and when they occurred, and we will report back as soon as we know something," John said.
Smoke from the fire traveled miles away. One person in Sunnyvale said he could smell the fire at his business by 8 p.m.
Emergency crews set up a staging area in the parking lot of a nearby Lunardi's supermarket. Dozens of homes were in the area of the fire and hundreds of people were forced to evacuate. Even by early afternoon Friday it was not clear when people could get back into their homes.
The waiting was torture for dozens of people worried about their homes.
Before the fire department identified the gas line as a culprit, witnesses speculated that the chaos may have been attributed to a plane crash.
The fire burned without any signs of stopping for the first full hour after the explosion. The fire could be seen from NBC Bay Area's helicopter from miles away, and people on the ground said the flames were 100 feet in the air.
The fire is located just north of San Francisco International Airport. Here is a Google map of the exact location.
An NBC Bay Area photographer who was near the scene said sounds similar to those of a jet engine could be heard for several minutes following the explosion. Another person who was about a half mile away said she could hear the roar of the fire or something that was fueling it from her balcony. Other people near the explosion said they thought it was an earthquake.
"We are going to take 24/7 oversight to make sure everything is done correctly, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters in Washington Friday.
The National Transportation Safety Board is the agency that is called upon to investigates pipeline accidents. The Transportation Department, which includes the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, regulates pipeline safety.
Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, acting governor while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in Asia on a trade mission, declared a state of emergency in San Mateo County. He said the first thing the governor asked him to convey is his thanks to the fire fighters and police who responded to this fire.
Also Friday, the Federal Emergency Management Administration made disaster relief funds available to cover 75 percent of the cost of fighting the fire. That money will cover equipment, supplies and emergency work such as evacuations, shelter and traffic control.
San Bruno set up an emergency hotline for victims or people worried about friends or loved one. (650) 616-7180. They asked everyone who lived in the area to call the line and register.
Below is a walk-through by a Southern California fire official as he shows what to look for to keep your home safe from gas leaks.