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Fuel Explosion in Area Hit by Train Kills 3

Times Staff Writer

Three people died and 31 were injured Thursday morning when a fireball from a ruptured gasoline line engulfed homes and outraced fleeing children in the same low-income neighborhood that was ravaged by a runaway freight train just two weeks ago.

Ten homes were leveled by the fast-moving blaze, and more than 200 people were evacuated as fire crews battled flames that shot 300 feet into the air and were visible for miles.

The names of the dead were withheld pending notification of relatives. Two bodies were found in a burned home. A third was found pinned against a back yard chain-link fence.

The fire’s devastation was almost unbearable for many residents of the Muscoy section of western San Bernardino still haunted by vivid memories of their earlier ordeal. On May 12, a runaway freight train plunged off tracks that skirt the neighborhood, killing four people and flattening a row of homes right across the street from those that took the brunt of Thursday’s blast.

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Nursing burns and comforting frightened children as they surveyed the burning skeletons of their houses, residents vowed to leave their seemingly star-crossed neighborhood and expressed anger that authorities had not foreseen the disaster.

“We’re all nervous wrecks,” Allene Muhammad said as she cuddled her terrified 2-year-old daughter, Fatin. “After the train wreck, they told us it was safe. They were wrong. How can we live here any more? How can our children deal with this?”

It was unclear Thursday what caused the reinforced steel pipeline to rupture and send a geyser of unleaded gasoline spewing into the air on Duffy Street just north of Highland Avenue.

But suspicion immediately focused on the derailed Southern Pacific freight train. The runaway train plowed nose-first into the buried fuel line and may have damaged or weakened it, making it vulnerable to the high pressure used to pump gasoline 250 miles from Colton to Las Vegas.

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Indeed, concern that the train’s steel cars may have punctured the line prompted authorities to evacuate a two-block area for two days after the derailment. Residents were allowed back into their homes only after city officials were assured by inspectors for the Calnev Pipeline Co. that the line was not damaged.

“This was our nightmare,” said Paul Allaire, spokesman for the San Bernardino Fire Department. “It happened just like we feared it would.”

The gasoline leak and fireball erupted about 8 a.m. in what used to be the back yard of a house on the west side of Duffy Street--one of 11 homes destroyed when the runaway train jumped the tracks on a curve. Seven of those homes had been leveled and the area fenced before the fire, which destroyed houses on the east side of Duffy that were unscathed by the derailment.

Witnesses said the firestorm, described by one resident as a “giant blowtorch,” whipped through the neighborhood moments after a freight train roared past on the repaired tracks.

“The train went by, and then I heard this loud bang. I just started running,” said Leah Thomas, 10, who was waiting with her brother, Jordan, 6, for the school bus when the blaze erupted. “My backpack fell off, and I got burned on my arm by the heat. I was screaming.”

Waiting with a group of stunned neighbors for treatment by paramedics, Leah Thomas reflected on the last 14 days: “I just want to leave this place,” she said. “I don’t want to live here any more.”

Martha Franklin, whose Donald Street home and new car were damaged by flames, was visiting with her insurance agent when she heard a loud boom.

“I peeked out the window, and I saw this ball of flame coming over the top of the house,” said Franklin, 60, who, coincidentally, works at a burn unit of San Bernardino County Medical Center. “I ran outside, and my hedges were on fire. The heat was so intense. It started singeing my hair.”

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Even an hour after the fire first swept through the neighborhood, dazed, burned residents--some still clad in pajamas--were running through the streets, weeping as they searched for lost pets and missing relatives.

Behind them lay an eerie, blackened landscape, strewn with half-melted mailboxes and glass from blown-out windows. Here and there, charred refrigerators, barbecues or baby strollers were visible in the piles of ash.

“I still haven’t found my daughter,” said Harvey Wilson, a Duffy Street resident. “She was so terrified after the train came off of there. She and my wife have been sleeping in the living room, as far from the tracks as they could. And now this.”

Fearful himself of another disaster, Wilson said he tried to sell his home to Southern Pacific Railroad and leave after the derailment, but was offered only $57,000. “Where can I go and buy a four-bedroom house for that? I’m trapped.”

Authorities said it was unclear if the passing train--one of eight that traverse the neighborhood daily--ignited the fireball. They said sparks from a three-car accident on nearby Highland Avenue may have set off a cloud of gasoline fumes, but there were no firm clues to the cause immediately.

“Something as simple as a water heater switching on, or a light being turned on, or even static electricity might have ignited it,” Allaire said. “Those fumes creep quickly along the ground, and it doesn’t take much.”

John Montgomery, a planner for the city of San Bernardino, said that a gasoline odor had been reported by people in the area in recent days. Numerous residents confirmed that they noticed a smell described variously as kerosene and propane since the derailment.

The 14-inch steel pipe, which is between four and eight feet below the surface where it passes behind Duffy Street, was under high pressure to push the fuel up the Cajon Pass grade into the upper desert.

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Residents said they were unaware of the gasoline line running beneath their properties until the train wreck. The pipeline is a major conduit that moves about 3 million gallons of gasoline daily and supplies 90% of the gasoline sold in Las Vegas.

After the May 12 derailment, Calnev crews uncovered a stretch of fuel line passing behind the homes and inspected its surface closely, manager of operations David Landries said. In certain areas, the company also excavated beneath the pipe to check further.

No damage or weaknesses were noted, and pumping resumed four days after the derailment.

On Thursday, Landries said the rupture is “obviously related” to the derailment. “We just don’t know how.”

City officials touring the fire site said they felt betrayed by Calnev officials and vowed to seek an injunction to prevent the company from pumping fuel through their community.

“I am very, very angry,” City Atty. James Penman said. “We let people back in there . . . (after) Calnev told us it was safe. Nothing they can ever say will assure me of that again.”

The evacuation area was bounded by Mallory Street on the north, Macy Street on the east, Highland Avenue on the south and Lytle Creek Wash on the west. An evacuation center was set up at the Inland Empire Job Corps Center on Kerry Street where residents sprawled on green cots and ate food provided by the Red Cross.

Many swapped stories of the horror, describing narrow escapes and heroic rescues.

“I helped one woman get her babies out, but their feet were all burned. The bottoms of their feet were just gone,” said Jeanette Cooper, who was waiting at the school bus stop with her son, Jerome, when she felt the ground shake and heard a boom.

Others sat quietly with their grief, and many, like Delores Jones, wondered about the future.

Jones was at work when she got the call that more trouble had befallen her neighborhood, where she has lived for two years.

“I got a call to not be concerned, but there had been a blast in the neighborhood,” Jones said. When she arrived, she saw there was cause for concern: Her house, on San Anselmo Street, was a charred shell.

“I’ve lost everything I worked hard to accumulate, I lost everything,” a trembling Jones said as she gazed at the property and was comforted by the mayor, Evlyn Wilcox, whom she knows.

Moments later, fire officials pulled her dog from the ruins, dazed and burned, but alive.

San Bernardino Councilwoman Valerie Pope-Ludlam, whose 6th Ward includes the Muscoy neighborhood, said she had been scheduled to meet Thursday night with a group of residents living near the pipeline.

“They didn’t feel safe going back” after the evacuation, Pope-Ludlam said. “We were going to give the people some assurance that from what we’d heard from Calnev and Southern Pacific, the pipeline was no danger.”

The home of Georgia Mitchell, where the meeting was to be held, was among those burned to the ground, Pope-Ludlam said.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the derailment, also plans to study the cause of the rupture.

Contributing to this article were Times staff writers John Hurst, Judy Pasternak and Kevin Roderick.

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