Regulators order systemwide inspection as some San Bruno residents return home
State regulators Sunday ordered Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to inspect its entire natural gas system, as San Bruno residents displaced by Thursday’s explosion began returning to their devastated neighborhood and investigators searched for four people still missing and tried to identify the dead.
The California Public Utilities Commission said it will ask PG&E to inspect its sprawling natural gas network, giving priority to high-pressure lines such as the one that exploded in a suburban neighborhood Thursday, killing at least four people and destroying 37 homes.
Commissioners also ordered PG&E to preserve records relating to the explosion and to any work done on the ruptured pipeline, and singled out service performed in September 2010 at the Milpitas terminal. Commission President Michael Peevey said he received a letter from Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado on Saturday requesting the actions. Maldonado has been leading the disaster response while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is in Asia.
PG&E employees and contractors will be interviewed as part of the National Transportation Safety Board’s probe. The company’s process for investigating leaks will be examined as well as annual budgets to determine how much of the money authorized for leak detection is actually spent, Peevey said in a news release Sunday.
In a statement released late Sunday, PG&E said it would “comply fully with any actions directed by the CPUC.” The utility said it had inspected the San Bruno pipeline in March and found no problems.
With the inquiry in its infancy, evacuees began returning to their homes Sunday while others turned to prayer for solace. Around midday, police allowed residents who live at least a block away from the blast epicenter to return home.
Emil Mathews and his wife, Lisa, pulled up to their light-brown tract home, a stone’s throw from the destruction zone, a few minutes after search teams with cadaver-sniffing dogs departed.
After looking inside to make sure everything was in place, Emil Mathews put up a ladder and climbed to the roof to view the devastation: home after home reduced to smoldering black piles, a fireplace sticking up here and there. A few houses away, the street looked normal: tidy homes, manicured lawns and unscathed cars lining the curb.
The only nearby clues to Thursday’s devastation were a pair of abandoned pink flip-flops, a few singed leaves and a neon-green sticker on the door that read, “lawful residency permitted.”
“I feel very blessed,” said Lisa Mathews, “but six houses down everything is gone.”
Closer to the center of the blast zone, residents gathered near metal barricades and shook hands and hugged, some introducing themselves for the first time. Someone proposed a neighborhood party to get to know one another better and offer support.
“It’s funny,” said Dennis Costanzo, “now we’re getting to know each other. The feuds and all the petty arguments are gone.”
The community, residents say, is a friendly one — a middle-class suburb where people buy homes because they are cheaper than in neighboring San Francisco yet offer a reasonable commute. San Bruno has 40,000 residents and is located 12 miles south of downtown San Francisco.
It’s not that people didn’t know each other before the explosion, neighbors said, but it was like many suburbs: sometimes you say a quick hello to your neighbors, sometimes you fight about little things.
“Something changed here when this happened,” said Maria Orrante, who has lived on and off in the neighborhood for 40 years. “People that you haven’t seen around the corner for 10, 15 years, now we’re all coming together. It’s like we’re all family.”
Inside her mother’s home, while she and her husband emptied the kitchen of spoiled potatoes and tuna, Voula Brown talked about the neighborhood. She moved there in 1963, when she was 5 years old.
All of the neighbors from that time are gone now, she said, but the people who moved in next-door helped her elderly mother get out of the home when the fire raged.
Brown walked through the home room by room, looking for damage but finding little.
“Well, I’m...,” she said and paused.
“Thrilled,” her husband said.
Gary Warren, 63, a retired planner for a semiconductor firm, was among the first of those allowed to return home.
He found utility workers inside turning his gas back on. The phones still worked but the electricity was out, a situation he hoped would change so he and his wife could sleep at home again.
“I’m tired of being on a forced vacation,” he said, standing in front of his two-story red house on Estates Drive. “I’m done with being scared.
I was scared for a long time that I’d have no home.”
Earlier Sunday, residents filled houses of worship, including the tearful congregation at Bethany Presbyterian Church.
Three members of the small church remained unaccounted for and were presumed dead: Greg Bullis, his teenage son William and his elderly mother Lavonne. Bullis’ wife and daughter were at work at the time of the explosion, a family friend told The Times on Saturday.
“Most of us came particularly with the Bullis family in mind,” said the Rev. Don Smith during the 10 a.m. service. “Lord, there are times when grief is worse than others, pain more enslaving of our lives. Today, the Bullis family comes with grief and sorrow — not because they know, but because they don’t know.
“Move along the process, so we may know the truth,” Smith prayed. “Lord, embrace this family in your arms. Give them the sense of your presence.”
Two other missing members of the congregation had been found safe, and many of the churchgoers at Bethany Presbyterian struggled with conflicting emotions.
They were stunned by the disaster, but grateful for the city’s first responders and the outpouring of support.
“What love and support everyone has given,” exclaimed one congregant during open prayer. “We all have so much to be grateful for. Yes, the event has been horrendous. But we have to take our blessings into account.”
At St. Robert’s church, worshipers prayed for the dead, for families who lost homes and for those returning to structures nearly destroyed.
Pastor Roberto A. Andrey said one of the dead, Jessica Morales, 20, had been volunteering for a Safari-themed church festival scheduled for next weekend.
Another church member, Elizabeth Torres, is believed to be among the dead. The pastor spoke to her eldest son, who said authorities are conducting forensic tests to verify that they found his mother’s remains.
“It’s almost certain that it was her,” Andrey said.
Parishioners have raised several thousand dollars for displaced families. One family is being housed in a convent on the church grounds, and the church opened a respite space at its retreat center in Los Altos.
“It will take some time before we get back to normal,” Andrey said.
PG&E officials said they have inspected the three pipelines that serve the San Francisco Peninsula and reduced pressure on those lines by 10%.
“For San Bruno and the immediate areas, we are all over it, and we’re developing a more comprehensive plan to look beyond San Bruno into San Francisco,” Geisha Williams, senior vice president for energy delivery, told residents at a packed town hall meeting Saturday.
A 7,481-foot segment of the San Bruno line, farther north, was identified as among the 100 riskiest, according to documents the utility filed with the California Public Utilities Commission. That segment, built in 1948, needs to be replaced because “the likelihood of a failure makes the risk of a failure at this location unacceptably high,” the documents concluded. The company proposed to spend $5 million to replace it between 2012 and 2014.
Andrew Souvall, a PG&E spokesman, said that section was inspected Friday and “no leaks were found.” He said that the report’s reference to pipeline risk was “forward-looking,” meaning it would become a risk if it were not replaced in the proposed time frame.
“We constantly monitor our system and if at any time we identify a threat to public safety we act to repair it,” he said. “We always take a proactive approach toward the maintenance of the lines.”
PG&E has 42,141 miles of natural gas distribution pipelines and 5,724 miles of transmission pipelines. It was unclear which pipelines were included in the commission’s directive, a utility spokesman said.
City officials said two of six people previously reported missing had been located. The San Mateo County Coroner’s Office confirmed four deaths, while San Bruno police reported other remains that may be additional victims. Forensic testing on the remains is pending.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it could take more than a year to finalize its investigation into the cause of the blast.
Federal investigators said they would issue a preliminary report in the next 30 days and issue recommendations right away if a safety issue is found. NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart urged witnesses to contact local authorities or e-mail investigators at email@example.com. He said the agency is particularly interested in videos of the fire.
The worst of the burn zone remained off limits except to investigators. Still, some victims tried to return Sunday.
A man with gauze on his head and neck approached Glenview Drive and San Bruno Avenue, south of the explosion site. He surveyed the area from a vantage point on a sidewalk above and asked a city official if he could go see the ashen remains of his home.
Councilman Ken Ibarra told him no — only people with intact homes would be able to return.
“It doesn’t matter,” the man said, turning around. “It’s all gone.”
Times staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske, John Hoeffel and Maria LaGanga contributed to this report from San Bruno.