, SAN FRANCISCO, Sep 10 – A huge gas pipe explosion killed one person and left dozens injured as it swept through a neighborhood near San Francisco, reducing over 50 homes to ashes and forcing residents to flee in panic.
San Bruno fire chief Dennis Haag confirmed one fatality from the disaster as he gave a preliminary assessment of the destruction that followed the blast caused by the rupture of a large natural gas pipeline.
Some 30 people were injured and at least 100 were evacuated and taken to shelters operated by the Red Cross, but authorities were struggling to account for residents and were clearly concerned the death toll could rise.
Television footage showed firefighters going house to house with sniffer dogs looking for victims, but "it is going to take us until at least (Friday) into the afternoon to do a complete search," Haag said.
In one street a dozen homes were seen engulfed in flames. Other images showed a smoldering crater the size of a city intersection and scores of raging fires turning San Bruno\’s smoke-filled night sky orange — just two miles (three kilometers) from the San Francisco International Airport.
Up to 200 firefighters were dispatched to battle the blaze, but they were no match for flames which destroyed 53 homes and damaged at least 120 more.
And the threat remained more than six hours after the fire began, with several blazes raging.
Local utility officials said the source of the blast was likely a large natural gas pipe that ruptured under a San Bruno road.
Pacific Gas & Electric spokesman Jeff Smith described the fire as "an absolutely horrible situation," and said that if it turns out the utility was to blame, "we will absolutely take accountability for it."
People wept as they fled while others paused to capture the chaotic scene on cell phone cameras.
"I heard a sound like a low flying plane, then all of a sudden the house shook," said Tina DiIoia, who was with her baby in their condominium in San Bruno, just south of San Francisco, when the explosion occurred about a half-mile away.
"Then there was another explosion. I went outside and there was debris falling from the air."
Helicopters and airplanes were seen dumping water and fire retardant chemicals in an effort to stanch the flames.
Several homes were thoroughly razed by the fire, cars were burned down to their frames, and debris — including large chunks of asphalt upended by the explosion — littered the streets.
"It looks like the entire mountainside is burning," DiIoia said.
"It was just a huge explosion," one resident recounted. "More than that, we felt the heat. It was a huge heat wave that sucked the air out for a minute."
One young man recounted being awakened by the blast and looking into his backyard to see trees and a dog house ablaze.
"The roof was falling in," he said of the terrifying scene. "I got the family and we ran down the street. The fire was very close."
A huge fountain of flames blasted from the ground like a blow torch where the pipe was ruptured and fire spread relentlessly to houses in several directions.
"A terrible, terrible tragedy has fallen on our city," said San Bruno mayor Jim Ruane. The top priority, he said, was "making sure our citizens are safe," while other city officials pleaded with residents to register with emergency authorities to let them know they and family members were safe.
"This is going to be a long haul for the city and our residents," he added.
More than 30 people were treated at local hospitals, with emergency rooms going on alert and some victims rushed to burn units, according to emergency workers.
"This is really a tragedy," said Kaiser Permanente medical facility spokesman Karl Sonkin. "We are caring for people as best we can."
California Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldenado, who is in charge while Arnold Schwarzenegger is in Asia, declared a state of emergency in the county of San Mateo where San Bruno is located.
"I commend the swift and courageous response of California\’s brave emergency personnel and stand ready to expedite any recovery resources that are needed," Maldonado said in a release, adding that a "swift investigation" into the cause of the fire would be launched.