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Deadly blaze destroys Calif. community


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Massive fire in San Bruno

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Deadly blaze destroys Calif. community

The sun rises to reveal rows of chimneys where homes once stood in San Bruno, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 10. The neighborhood was devastated by a massive natural gas explosion Thursday night.

  • A home for sale sign is shown in front of three houses that were destroyed after a massive fire roared through a mostly residential neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., Thursday. Firefighters from San Bruno and surrounding cities battled the blaze that started on a hillside and consumed homes in a residential neighborhood.

    A woman is treated by paramedics after an explosion in San Bruno, Calif.

    SAN BRUNO, Calif. — As fire crews sprayed the ruins of burning homes Friday after a massive explosion and fire in a San Francisco suburb killed at least four people and destroyed more than 50 homes, residents in the area told local NBC affiliate KNTV that they had complained about a natural gas smell for weeks.

    Tim Guiterrez, who lives in the neighborhood, told KNTV that a representative from the utility PG&E was in the neighborhood last week and told people to shut their garage doors and stay inside as they looked into the complaint.

    PG&E President Chris Johns said at a news conference Friday that the utility is looking into reports and will go over their records from the phone calls about the complaints.

    Meanwhile, the death toll fluctuated as authorities began assessing the damage.


    1. Residents: We smelled gas before deadly blast

      A massive explosion sent flames roaring through a neighborhood south of San Francisco on Thursday night, destroying more than 50 homes and leaving at least four dead.

      Full story

      California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado said that four residents had died, but state Sen. Leland Yee said the California Emergency Management Agency told him six perished.

      Maldonado said area hospitals had taken in 52 patients. Emergency room personnel also treated four firefighters, he said.

      San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane told MSNBC that emergency personnel expect the death toll to rise as they start morning search and rescue missions.

    Utility officials said a natural gas line ruptured in the vicinity of the blast, which left a giant crater and sent flames tearing across several suburban blocks in San Bruno just after 6 p.m. local time (9 p.m. ET) Thursday.

    After the initial blast, flames reached as high as 100 feet as the fire fueled itself on burning homes, leaving some in total ruins and reducing parked automobiles to burned out shells. At least 120 homes also suffered serious damage.

    Blast shook fire station ‘to its foundation’

    Witnesses heard the explosion miles away and said it shot a fireball more than 1,000 feet in the air, sending frightened residents fleeing for safety and rushing to get belongings out of burning homes.

    “I thought a 747 had landed on us,” Fire Capt. Charlie Barringer told the Los Angeles Times. “It shook our station right to its foundation.”

    The fire had spread to 15 acres, Maldonado said, but firefighters have managed to contain 75 percent of the fires.

    Maldonado, who is the acting governor while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is on a trade mission to Asia, declared a state of emergency in San Mateo County.

    Pacific Gas and Electric Co, which serves the San Francisco Bay area, said Friday morning a damaged section of a 30-inch steel gas pipeline had been isolated and gas flow had been stopped. About 300 customers were without gas service and about 700 without electricity at 4 a.m. (7 a.m. ET) Friday.

    “If it is ultimately determined that we were responsible for the cause of the incident, we will take accountability,” the company said in an e-mailed statement.

    The National Transportation Safety Board said Friday that it has sent a four-member team to San Bruno to investigate.

    Barringer, the fire captain, said flames engulfed the neighborhood 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.

    “We were overwhelmed. We had multiple neighborhoods on fire,” he told the Times.
    ‘I don’t know where to go’

    Resident Connie Bushman returned home to find her block was on fire. She said she ran into her house looking for her 80-year-old father but could not find him. A firefighter told her he had left, but she had not been able to track him down.

    “I don’t know where my father is, I don’t know where my husband is, I don’t know where to go,” Bushman said.

    Resident Marla Shelmadine told NBC the explosions came down her street, destroying one house at a time in quick succession. She said she got out of her house with her pets, and did not know if her home was destroyed or not.

    Omar Naber and his mother, Lana Naber, told the San Francisco Chronicle they were in their home when the house shook violently.

    “I thought it was the biggest earthquake ever,” he told the paper.

    Naber described how he ran to his door and tried to open it, but the handle burned his hand. He then fled the house with his mother and as they ran to their car they could see the fireball. The intense heat burned hair off his arms, Naber said.

    Other neighbors told NBC they saw the street rip apart and ran for their lives from a huge wall of flames, with one man describing how he jumped into his car and drove through the blaze.

    The man, who was not identified, told NBC the explosion was followed by a hail of asphalt falling from the sky. His bumper was fried by the time he got to safety, but he was safe.

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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