Blast, fire raze Bay Area homes


A massive explosion believed to have been caused by a gas line break sparked an inferno that consumed a San Bruno neighborhood Thursday night, killing at least one person, leveling 53 homes, forcing residents to run for their lives and leaving about 23 people injured, a number of them with severe burns.

The blast, which occurred shortly after 6 p.m., ignited a wind-driven fire that quickly destroyed or damaged more than 170 homes, set treetops on fire and illuminated the sky for miles around. Hours after the explosion, fire crews from throughout the state continued to rush to the scene, but their efforts were hampered by winds that reportedly reached more than 30 mph.

As of 10 p.m., authorities had confirmed one fatality. The fire had burned across 10 acres and was 50% contained late Thursday, a state official said. A complete search of the area proved impossible with the fire still burning into the night.

“My house is gone. I’m trying to keep from just breaking down. Everything’s gone,” said Tina Pellegrini, whose home was near Claremont and Glenview drives.

“I was in my bedroom and heard a boom,” she said. “My house is shaking. I thought it was an earthquake. I get the dog to go ride it out. We look out the living room window and it was orange. I had the forethought to put on my shoes and grab my purse and run out of my house. I could feel the fire from five houses away. It was so intense.”

Marla Shelmadine lives four houses down from the explosion site.

“We went outside. It was like an inferno,” she said. “If we stayed any longer, our skin would have melted.”

Shelmadine, who fled with her cat and three dogs, was among evacuees who gathered at the Bayhill Shopping Center to wait for word about their homes and friends.

“I got them by the tail,” she said of her animals. “By the time we got to the garage it was filled with smoke. The house three doors down was in flames.”

She said her house is gone. Some witnesses in the residential area, which is not far from San Francisco International Airport, said that the explosion sounded like a plane crash and that it rocked homes and windows. But authorities soon ruled out that possibility.

Although Pacific Gas and Electric crews on scene told television news reporters that a gas line rupture sparked the explosion, spokesmen for the power company cautioned that they were still investigating. Late Thursday, the utility confirmed that one of its lines in the area had ruptured, but said that the cause of the fire had not been determined.

“Our hearts and thoughts go out to those affected by this terrible, terrible tragedy,” said PG&E spokesman J.D. Guidi.

Neighbors and volunteer groups pitched in to help, with some residents reportedly stepping in to direct traffic away from the area. Those gathered at the Bayhill Shopping Center, a few miles from the explosion site, clustered around the Starbuck’s and an Extreme Pizza store and talked about what they had witnessed.

Hifa Salfiti, who lives on Claremont Drive, said she and her husband were stunned by the blast.

“We were sitting in the house and heard a huge explosion,” she said. “We thought first of all it was an earthquake. It was beyond huge. We ran to the deck and saw a huge fire. We ran to the street and they began evacuating us. The fire was like hell.”

Salfiti, who was clad in her pink bathrobe, said she and her husband quickly fled. She did not know if her house was still standing.

Throughout the evening, shaken people arrived at the shopping center, embracing each other and talking about their losses.

Bob Marshall, the former mayor of San Bruno, a city of about 41,000, said his house was undamaged in the blast. He came to see if anybody needed help.

“We were in our house. It sure sounded like a plane went over,” Marshall said. “The next thing we saw, the flames, the explosion and the flames.”

Many who fled had no idea whether they had homes to go back to.

Doug Kunze, who lives on Claremont Drive, said he was watching a football game on TV when he heard an explosion and saw fire. The cable went out and the water went out.

“The fire was huge. It was 100 feet in the air,” he said. “Something was continually feeding it. It got so hot you couldn’t get closer than a block.”

He said he and his family evacuated on foot.

“I’m not sure we have any place to go back to,” Kunze said. “So many homes were destroyed. The neighborhood will never be the same.”

Dan Grassis said he heard several booms and opened the garage door to find flames and smoke. “It was like something you see in a war movie,” he said.

At nightfall, a San Mateo County sheriff’s truck drove up and down street, using a loudspeaker to order people to leave. Law enforcement officials canvassed the neighborhood.

Even as crews continued to fight the flames, insurance agents and construction contractors were passing out their cards at the shopping center and asking people if they could help.

“Anybody with Farmers Insurance? Want to open up a claim?” shouted Doug Wong, a general adjustor with the agency.

The explosion Thursday evoked memories for many in the area of a deadly November 2004 pipeline explosion in Walnut Creek, which is across San Francisco Bay from San Bruno.

In that incident, a 60-foot pillar of fire erupted from a punctured Kinder-Morgan petroleum pipeline beside Las Lomas High School when a backhoe apparently clipped the high-pressure fuel line. Contractors were working to install a massive water pipe for the East Bay Municipal Utility District just a few feet from the fuel line’s path. A clear account of casualties Thursday was not immediately available, but hospital officials reported caring for badly burned patients.

A man and a woman in serious condition were being treated at San Francisco General Hospital, a spokeswoman said.

The two, spokeswoman Rachale Kagan said, “were in critical condition due to the burns.”

At least three other badly burned patients were taken to St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco, a spokeswoman said.

At Peninsula Medical Center in Millbrae, medical personnel were treating 10 patients with minor burns. The facility had declared a trauma alert, calling in extra personnel to deal with the emergency.

As flames continued to rage out of control in San Bruno, fire crews from outlying cities and agencies poured in to help.

Four air tankers, two smaller attack planes and 25 fire engines from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection were headed to the blaze, the agency said.

Off-duty firefighters, some of them without their protective gear, were battling the blaze alongside overwhelmed crews from the small San Bruno Fire Department, according to news reports.

The Blood Center of the Pacific issued an emergency alert and asked for people to donate blood Friday.

At San Francis Hospital, a major burn center, medical crews were gearing up to treat more patients.

“We do expect more victims,” said spokeswoman Theresa Edison.

Times staff writers Megan Garvey, Maura Dolan, Lee Romney and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.