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Reports of gas smell weeks before explosion

September 10, 2010 12:55:38 AM PDT
Authorities are looking into reports that San Bruno residents smelled gas in the area weeks before the massive explosion and fire that has killed at least four people.Leif Veimoen of San Bruno said he was barbecuing last weekend when his sister smelled the strong scent of gas and asked if someone had made sure to turn the barbecue off.

"She said, 'It really smells like gas.' And apparently, other people in the neighborhood had been smelling this for about three weeks," Veimoen said.

Chris Johns, president of Pacific Gas and Electric, said the company had not received confirmation that there were reports of a gas smell in the area before the explosion, but said they were looking into it.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) said a 30-inch gas line ruptured three feet underground just after 6 p.m. Thursday, sending a fireball into the sky. Heavy winds fueled the fire in the small neighborhood.

"The fireball was 100 feet or more in the air," said firefighter Neil Wild. "It just would not stop, so we knew it was some kind of gas main 'cause it just kept going."

Along with the four confirmed deaths, 50 people were injured, and three were critically burned.

At daylight on Friday, it was easier to see what the explosion had left behind, and authorities brought out search dogs to look for more victims. Authorities have said that the death toll may rise.

"This is very difficult time for the city. The sun is shinging, but there's a dark cloud. You've heard the numbers, but they're going to get higher," said Mayor Jim Ruane during a news conference.

Crews have not been able to get close enough to the explosion site to find a cause for the rupture.

The 15-acre fire was fully contained shortly after 1 p.m. on Friday.

During a Friday morning news conference, officials said 38 homes were destroyed. Seven homes have significant damage, and dozens of others were damaged. The neighborhood looked like a war zone, and all that was left were chimneys. Cars that were parked in the street were all charred.

At the epicenter of the massive blast, there was a 15-foot crater created by the explosion that was so strong, it melted the asphalt.

Initially when the blast happened, neighbors said they saw flames as high as 1,000 feet. Shortly thereafter, flames reached as high as 50 to 60 feet.

"I couldn't figure out exactly what the sound was. It just got louder and louder," said Jeff Perez of San Bruno. "The sky was just aflame, and I couldn't figure out what had happened."

California Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado, acting governor while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in Asia on a trade mission, declared a state of emergency in San Mateo County.

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

This was not the first time a deadly explosion occurred on a PG&E gas line. The utility company has had 19 significant pipeline incidents since 2002, with one previous fatality.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Friday that it has sent a four-member team to San Bruno to investigate the blast. The NTSB's duties include investigating pipeline accidents.

The NTSB report was not expected to be complete for at least two months.

If you would like to help the residents affected by the San Bruno fire, monetary donations can be sent to:

American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter
Attn: Development
85 Second Street, 8th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105

You can also call (888) 4-HELP-BAY or visit the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter's website to donate online, http://www.redcrossbayarea.org.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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