Fire Engulfs San Francisco Suburb

A massive fire is burning in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno after an apparent natural gas line ruptured. At least one person was killed. Dozens of homes were destroyed.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The San Francisco suburb of San Bruno was rocked by the explosion of a natural gas pipeline last night. Residents were forced to run for their lives. The blast produced a massive fireball in a heavily populated neighborhood near the San Francisco airport. More than 50 homes were destroyed, well over 100 were damaged, and firefighters are still worried about what they might find when the smoke clears. NPR's Richard Gonzales is in San Bruno and joins us now.

Richard, can you give us an idea of where San Bruno is in relation to San Francisco and what the firefighters are trying to do?

RICHARD GONZALES: Yes, Linda. San Bruno is a hilly community of about 41,000 people. It's a densely populated city just south of San Francisco near the San Francisco airport. At around 6 PM local time, there was a huge explosion, and firefighters couldn't get containment on this fire until they figured out a way to get that pipeline shutdown.

What firefighters also had to deal with was high winds. High winds of about 20 or more than 20 miles per hour sent embers all across the neighborhood known as Glenview, and started fires all over this section of San Bruno.

WERTHEIMER: Have you been able to talk to any of the people who live there, witnesses?

GONZALES: Yes, we have. We have been sitting in a staging area for people who have been evacuated from their neighborhood, where they might receive referrals for service. And I spoke with one woman. Her name was Cass Capsiac(ph). She's a caterer. And she explained what happened when she first realized something was wrong.

Ms. CASS CAPSIAC (Caterer): I was cooking dinner when the whole house shook and there was this big rumble and then we heard this giant explosion. And everybody ran out of the houses. And we thought it was closer than it was. It was about a mile and a half from us, but they've evacuated the whole neighborhood because of the wind and the fires in the canyon and it's very volatile.

WERTHEIMER: Richard, a gas pipeline explosion of this size, does anybody have any idea why it blew up?

GONZALES: At a news conference last night, the fire chief Dennis Haig(ph), says it's still too early to tell. He doesn't know how or why this pipeline was compromised and how it managed to set off such a massive blaze.

WERTHEIMER: Can you tell us something about the kind of damage you're looking at?

GONZALES: Well, I'm far from the damage. People have been kept away from what this is, essentially ground zero of this fire. But we do know that the fire itself is about 50 percent contained, but there are still scattered fires all over what's known as the Glenview neighborhood. And the firefighters are beginning and continue a search for victims who may not have made it out.

WERTHEIMER: Do authorities have a sense of who's been accounted for and who has not? Do they think there were people caught in that explosion that did not get out?

GONZALES: That's their main concern, accounting for every person. City manager Connie Jackson asked for everyone who is in that neighborhood, who could get out, to report to authorities. And here's how she said it.

Ms. CONNIE JACKSON (City Manager, San Bruno): We're asking residents to report in so that we can make sure that all of the residents in the affected area are fully accounted for. This is our most immediate priority.

GONZALES: Of course, you know, they're very concerned that there were a lot of people who were unable to get out. And they fear what they will find this morning.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Richard.

GONZALES: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Richard Gonzales reporting on a massive fire in San Bruno, California.

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