National

Sep 10, 2010 8:43 AM by David Briggs, Bea Karnes, News First 5

Death toll climbs to 6 in California blast, fire

A massive explosion sent flames roaring through a neighborhood in the hills south of San Francisco on Thursday night, destroying more than 50 homes, leaving six dead and injuring dozens.

The explosion shot a fireball more than 1,000 feet in the air and sent frightened residents fleeing for safety and rushing to get belongings out of burning homes.

Flames hot enough to crack a fire engine windshield incinerated homes and damaged 120 others as crews continued battling the blaze into the night.

"Firefighters are working to keep the area from spreading to other homes in the area, search and rescue efforts are needed but the fire danger is too high to attempt S&R at this time," said a statement from San Bruno city officials obtained by NBC News.

The fire has killed three people, and search and recovery assessments are set to begin at 8 a.m. PDT, a City of San Bruno spokeswoman told NBC News.

A 15-foot-deep crater about 30 feet long and 20 feet wide was left near Claremont and Glenview drives and Earl Avenue. Homes on both sides of the street were leveled.

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 told The Associated Press.

An official number of people hurt or unaccounted for wasn't immediately available, although the fire dispatch officials said at least 75 had been injured, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

Nineteen patients came to the South San Francisco Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente spokesman Karl Sonkin told msnbc.com. Of those, staff almost immediately transferred four to St. Francis Hospital's burn unit and sent another to Kaiser Permanente's San Francisco hospital for evaluation of a possible heart attack.

Emergency room personnel treated and released eight others, Sonkin said; one additional patient was still undergoing treatment overnight, but is also expected to be released. The ER also treated four firefighters who walked into the hospital with symptoms of smoke inhalation.

Firefighters from San Bruno and surrounding cities battled the blaze, which started on a hillside near Interstates 280 and 380, Skyline Boulevard and Sneath Lane in San Bruno. The area is a few miles west of San Francisco International Airport.

 

The local fire department said a high-pressure line caused the blast.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co, which serves the San Francisco Bay area, said one of its gas lines 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.

"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.

After the blast, flames reached as high as 100 feet as the fire fueled itself on burning homes. Between 150 and 200 firefighters were at the scene, San Bruno Fire Chief Dennis Haag said. Planes and helicopters flew over the neighborhood dumping water.

Officials said crews could not initially get close to the ruptured gas line because they had to wait for the utility company to cut its supply. Haag added that more than 100 people were being sheltered at nearby evacuation centers.

Fire officials planned to convene at the scene at 6:00 a.m. PDT to begin a formal damage assessment.

More than 200 law enforcement officers were directing traffic and providing perimeter security, as major roads in the area remain closed, the statement said.

It also noted that San Bruno Park School District will remain closed Friday.

San Bruno Fire Capt. Charlie Barringer, however, 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.

Marla Shelmadine, who lives on 1131 Fairmont Drive, said 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 Chronicle they were in their home when the house shook violently.

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

Naber told the Chronicle 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 oneman describing how he jumped into his car and drove through the blaze.

The man, who was not identified, said 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.

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