1 Dead, 53 Homes Destroyed In California Fire

"A massive explosion sent flames roaring through a neighborhood in the hills south of San Francisco Thursday, destroying more than 50 homes and leaving at least one person dead. The utility company that serves the San Francisco Bay area said one of its gas lines ruptured in the vicinity of the blast, which left a giant crater and sent flames tearing across several suburban blocks in San Bruno just after 6 p.m."

SAN BRUNO, Calif. — A massive explosion sent flames roaring through a neighborhood in the hills south of San Francisco Thursday, destroying more than 50 homes and leaving at least one person dead.

The utility company that serves the San Francisco Bay area said one of its gas lines ruptured in the vicinity of the blast, which left a giant crater and sent flames tearing across several suburban blocks in San Bruno just after 6 p.m.

A home for sale sign is shown in front of home that was destroyed after a massive fire that roared through a mostly residential neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010. Firefighters from San Bruno and surrounding cities are battling the blaze that started on a hillside and is now consuming homes in a residential neighborhood. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

"If it is ultimately determined that we were responsible for the cause of the incident, we will take accountability," Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said in an e-mailed statement.

Flames hot enough to crack a fire engine windshield incinerated 53 homes and damaged 120 as crews continued battling the blaze into the night. At least one person was confirmed dead in the blast, San Bruno Fire Chief Dennis Haag said.

The fire had spread to 10 acres and was 50 percent contained late Thursday, said Jay Allen, spokesman for the California Emergency Management Agency.

A massive fire is roars through a mostly residential neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010. Firefighters from San Bruno and surrounding cities are battling the blaze that started on a hillside and is now consuming homes in a residential neighborhood. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Between 150 and 200 firefighters were at the scene, Haag said. More than 100 people were being sheltered at nearby evacuation centers, but no estimate of the number of residents missing was available, he said.

Witnesses said the explosion shot a fireball more than 1,000 feet in the air and sent frightened residents fleeing for safety and rushing to get belongings out of burning homes.

After the blast, flames reached as high as 100 feet as the fire fueled itself on burning homes. Planes and helicopters flew over the neighborhood dumping water.

Two cars burned after a massive fire roared through a mostly residential neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010. Firefighters from San Bruno and surrounding cities are battling the blaze that started on a hillside and is now consuming homes in a residential neighborhood. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

San Bruno Fire Capt. Charlie Barringer said the neighborhood was engulfed by the time firefighters arrived, even though the fire station was only a few blocks away. He said the blast took out the entire water system, forcing firefighters to pump water from more than two miles away.

Haag said firefighters initially had trouble getting close enough to the ruptured gas line to shut it down because of the flames.

Connie Bushman returned home to find her block was on fire. She said she ran into her house looking for her 80-year-old father but could not find him. A firefighter told her he had left, but she had not been able to track him down.

"I don't know where my father is, I don't know where my husband is, I don't know where to go," Bushman said.

Victims suffering from serious burns began arriving at San Francisco Bay area hospitals shortly after the blast. An estimate of the number of injured wasn't immediately available. Hospitals reported receiving about 20 injured patients — several of whom were in critical condition — and they anticipated getting more.

 A massive fire is roars through a mostly residential neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010. Firefighters from San Bruno and surrounding cities are battling the blaze that started on a hillside and is now consuming homes in a residential neighborhood. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Jane Porcelli, 62, said she lives on a hill above where the fire was centered. She said she thought she heard a plane overhead with a struggling engine.

"And then you heard this bang. And everything shook except the floor, so we knew it wasn't an earthquake," Porcelli said. "I feel helpless that I can't do anything. I just gotta sit by and watch."

 

Stephanie Mullen, Associated Press news editor for photos based in San Francisco, was attending children's soccer practice with her two children and husband at Crestmoor High School when she saw the blast at 6:14 p.m.

"First, it was a low deep roar and everybody looked up, and we all knew something big was happening," she said. "Then there was a huge explosion with a ball of fire that went up behind the high school several thousand feet into the sky.

"Everybody grabbed their children and ran and put their children in their cars," Mullen said. "It was very clear something awful had happened."

Several minutes later, Mullen was near the fire scene, about a half-mile away in a middle-class neighborhood of 1960s-era homes in hills overlooking San Francisco, the bay and the airport. She said she could feel the heat of the fire on her face although she was three or four blocks away from the blaze. It appeared the fireball was big enough to have engulfed at least several homes.

"I could see families in the backyards of the homes next to where the fire was, bundling their children and trying to get them out of the backyards," she recounted.

She said people in the neighborhood were yelling, "This is awful" and "My family is down there."

Judy and Frank Serrsseque were walking down a hill away from the flames with a makeshift wagon carrying important documents, medication and three cats. 

 

Judy Serrsseque said she heard an explosion, saw that fire was headed toward their home and knew they had to leave. As they fled, they said they saw people burned and people struggling to get their things out of burning houses.

"We got everything together, and we just got out," Judy Serrsseque. "Mostly we're wondering if we have a house to go back to."

Associated Press Writers Juliana Barbassa in San Bruno and Marcus Wohlsen, John S. Marshall and Jason Dearen in San Francisco contributed to this report.