Answers Still Elusive In San Bruno, Calif., Pipeline Blast A month after a fatal gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., survivors and investigators are still asking how it happened. Many victims continue to relive that night. Investigators are looking at everything from problems in the pipeline control room to transmission line maintenance.
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Answers Still Elusive In San Bruno Pipeline Blast

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Answers Still Elusive In San Bruno Pipeline Blast

Answers Still Elusive In San Bruno Pipeline Blast

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Federal investigators have released a preliminary report on last month's massive natural gas explosion in San Bruno, California. The blast killed eight people and leveled 37 homes. The report says a power failure prior to the accident led to a brief pressure change in the gas pipeline, but it does not say the pressure change caused the explosion. While investigators continue to search for answers, many people in the San Francisco suburb are simply trying to move beyond that horrible night.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES: As victims of the San Bruno disaster go, Kevin Ashley's family is among the fortunate. While some families are in motels or staying with friends, the Ashleys found a comfortable home in a quiet subdivision. Still, Ashley, a father of two young children, is visibly uncomfortable as he recalls the explosion that rocked his house.

KEVIN ASHLEY: It was a nice Thursday day. I remember the goldness and the yellowness of the sun, and the beauty of the day. And then all of a sudden, it just changed in a matter of seconds just from the rumble of the ground to the sky turning black, and me grabbing both my kids, trying to figure out what's going on - if it's a plane crash. What's running through my mind, I hope my kids don't die.

GONZALES: Running out of his house, Ashley's year-old daughter banged her head on a doorjamb, opening a big gash.

ASHLEY: And as I looked down the street, a wall of fire, a big orange ball was just coming towards us. And I just grabbed the kids and fled and ran.

GONZALES: Remarkably, Ashley's home, across the street from the ruptured pipeline, survived the explosion and fire. But everything inside is smoke- damaged, trashed. And then there's their psychological scars. Ashley and his wife, Michele, talk about lingering bouts of anxiety. They have just returned from a victim's support group.

MICHELE ASHLEY: The reason why we went to the support group was because, you know, I thought maybe moving into a new home would help some of my feelings, or make me feel better. But there's not a moment where I'm still not thinking about it.

GONZALES: The Ashleys aren't the only ones preoccupied with the pipeline explosion.

MINDY SPATT: Customers are asking what went wrong here and is it going to happen again?

GONZALES: Mindy Spatt is a spokeswoman for a utility industry watchdog group called TURN. She recalls that the pipeline's owner, PG&E, has said that it had inspected the San Bruno line and found no problems.

SPATT: So the fact that they inspected it simply raises more questions. What kind of inspection was done? Were best practices followed? Were inspectors properly trained?

GONZALES: Those were the same questions raised by federal investigators after a gas pipeline explosion in Rancho Cordova, California back in 2008. It killed one person and injured five others. Like the San Bruno explosion, this one also involved a PG&E pipeline. At the time, federal investigators criticized PG&E for failing to adequately check the gas leak. Today in San Bruno, investigators are looking at everything from problems in the pipeline control room to maintenance of the transmission line.

Robert Bea, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, says he'd look at the topography of the San Bruno neighborhood.

ROBERT BEA: You could see that this pipeline was at the bottom of a hill. And as I looked at that, I said, Uh-huh, water likes to run downhill. And so, I probably got the steel and those welds in contact with water.

GONZALES: Bea says that might mean corrosion weakened the pipeline. For its part, PG&E this week announced a plan to regain public confidence in its safety program. It will replace several hundred manually operated shutoff valves with automatic or remote-controlled systems.

In last month's disaster, it took nearly two hours for workers to manually shut off the gas after the explosion. This is PG&E president, Chris Johns.

CHRIS JOHNS: An accident like occurred - that one that occurred in San Bruno should never happen. It shouldn't happen here. It shouldn't happen anywhere.

GONZALES: Johns would get no argument from Michele Ashley.

ASHLEY: Just because the fire no longer is in the news doesn't mean the neighborhood and my family is not living that night and still living it out every day.

GONZALES: This week the California Public Utilities Commission will announce the formation of an independent panel to investigate the incident. The results of a detailed report by the National Transportation Safety Board are months away.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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