Two days after a massive pipeline blast engulfed a Peninsula neighborhood in a hellish inferno, search teams made the grisly discovery of three more bodies in a home destroyed by the explosion, and new information surfaced about a 2008 sewer project that could have weakened the gas line.
SAN BRUNO, Calif. — Two days after a massive pipeline blast engulfed a Peninsula neighborhood in a hellish inferno, search teams made the grisly discovery of three more bodies in a home destroyed by the explosion, and new information surfaced about a 2008 sewer project that could have weakened the gas line.
In all, the death toll rose to seven, and six additional people are still considered missing, officials said Saturday night.
Meanwhile, at a town-hall meeting, San Bruno residents demanded answers from Pacific Gas & Electric, which owns the 30-inch-diameter natural-gas pipeline that exploded into a fireball Thursday evening, destroying 37 homes and sending hundreds fleeing from more than 200 other homes.
In one potentially significant area for investigators, records surfaced Saturday showing that two years ago, the San Bruno City Council hired a construction company to replace underground sewer lines in the same area as the location of the pipeline that exploded.
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In May 2008, the city approved a contract with D’Arcy and Harty Construction, a San Francisco firm, to replace 1,670 feet of aging sewer pipes on Earl Avenue from Sneath Lane to Glenview Drive.
The sewer work crossed the gas pipeline at the intersection of Earl and Glenview, which is the location of the explosion.
To avoid the disruption of digging trenches in the street, the contractor used a method called “pipe bursting.”
Crews pulled a large cone-shaped device through the aging 6-inch sewer pipes, shattering them, and replaced them by pulling a new 10-inch polyethylene sewer pipe in behind them.
The technique can cause ground shaking and disruption of adjacent soil and rock.
But a representative of the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PG&E pipelines, told the Mercury News that large transmission pipes, which move gas at high pressures, can be at risk of failure if they are damaged, even in relatively small ways.
“We don’t know yet what happened to the pipe. But theoretically, any kind of ground movement, or shifting could affect that transmission line,” said Julie Halligan, deputy director of the PUC’s consumer-protection and safety division.
“If that construction wasn’t done properly, theoretically it could have affected it. Pipe damage over time can make that spot vulnerable, so that one weak spot can cause a problem.”
Nine cadaver dogs and multiple teams continued to search for bodies, San Mateo County Deputy Coroner April Florent said. “The dogs are getting hits, but we don’t know if they are animal or human. It’s still ongoing,” she said of the search.
The coroner had not identified the latest victims as of Saturday night.
Also on Saturday, San Bruno residents learned they would not be allowed to return home while investigators continued the search, and emergency and utility workers continued inspecting the burn zone.
More than 600 people crowded into St. Roberts Catholic Church for a town-hall meeting.
At least two people were so overcome by the heat at the packed event that they had to be whisked away to a hospital.