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Deaths expected to rise in gas explosion

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By Associated Press

BRUNO, Calif. (AP) — Fire crews tried to douse the remnants of an enormous blaze and account for the residents of dozens of homes after a gas line ruptured and an explosion ripped through in a neighborhood near San Francisco, killing at least four people and likely more.
Emergency workers haven’t been able to get into all the homes and authorities said there could be more casualties. The number of deaths was rising: San Francisco state Sen. Leland Yee told The Associated Press he was briefed at the scene Friday morning by the California Emergency Management Agency and at least six people have died.
Fire officials and Yee later said the official count is still four killed and 52 injured, with three people suffering critical burns in the blaze that enveloped the middle-class neighborhood of 1960s-era homes in hills overlooking San Francisco, the bay and the airport. Four firefighters suffered minor smoke inhalation injuries and were treated and released within a couple hours, said Fire Chief Dennis Haag.
Haag said crews walked through the neighborhood Friday morning and revised the damage estimate to 38 structures destroyed and seven significantly damaged. Dozens of other homes suffered less severe damage in the fire, which burned 15 acres.
The blaze was 75 percent contained by midmorning, officials said.
“The sun is shining over there, but there’s still a dark cloud over this city,” said San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane.
Brothers Bob and Ed Pellegrini, whose homes was near the center of the explosion, told The Oakland Tribune that they thought an earthquake had struck until they looked out the window.
“It looked like hell on earth. I have never seen a ball of fire that huge,” Bob Pellegrini said.
The flames quickly chased them from their home.
“The house is gone,” Ed said. “I have nothing. Everything is gone. We’re homeless.”
The explosion was heard for miles and 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.
A natural gas line ruptured at 6:24 p.m. Thursday near the blast but it’s not not yet sure why, California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado said. The blast left a giant crater and sent flames tearing across several suburban blocks in San Bruno.
After the initial blast, flames reached as high as 100 feet as the fire fueled itself on burning homes, leaving some in total ruins and reducing parked automobiles to burned out hulks.
Maldonado, acting governor while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in Asia on a trade mission, declared a state of emergency in San Mateo County.
Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat who represents San Mateo County, said she was working to secure federal disaster assistance for residents and businesses affected by the fire.
“This is an extraordinary community, it’s extremely tight-knit. Generations of families have lived here forever. And we will all come together. We will restore the homes and lives of all these people.”
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said in an e-mailed statement that “if it is ultimately determined that we were responsible for the cause of the incident, we will take accountability.”

The company said Friday morning a damaged section of a 30-inch steel gas pipeline had been isolated and gas flow had been stopped. About 300 customers were without gas service and about 700 without electricity at 4 a.m. Friday.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Friday that it has sent a four-member team to San Bruno to investigate the blast. The NTSB’s duties include investigating pipeline accidents.
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. 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.”