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San Bruno firefighters share their stories

September 15, 2010 12:18:29 AM PDT
Now that the last of the fires have been extinguished, the stories of what first responders faced when they arrived at the scene of the San Bruno explosion and fire are beginning to emerge.

More than 200 emergency personnel rushed to the neighborhood last Thursday, many of them were off duty and living in the community. Without knowing what they were headed into, they raced toward the flames as residents ran for their lives.

"We looked out the back door and we could see a fireball," San Bruno Fire Capt. Bill Forester said.

The fireball was just the beginning.

"Initially we're thinking that a jet airplane went down from San Francisco airport; I personally was thinking it might be a terrorist thing," Forester said.

It would be more than 20 minutes before these first responders realized it was not an airplane crash.

"This thing was blowing out like you wouldn't believe and I'd say probably 100-foot flame lengths," Forester said.

Residents, some with burns all over their bodies, ran into the streets, but the crews were so overwhelmed they could not help many of them.

San Bruno Police Sgt. Mike Guldner remembers one badly burned man.

"One particular gentleman offered his assistance, advising he was a doctor and another a paramedic; I gladly handed that gentleman over to them to their care so that I could help evacuate other citizens in the area," he said.

"What we did was ask citizens to drive people with second degree burns to their arms and face to the hospital," San Bruno firefighter John Priolo said.

Firefighters and police officers raced toward the heat, but they were stopped in their tracks.

"We could only go so far because the wall of fire was just incredibly, intensely hot," South San Francisco Police Sgt. Ron Carlino said.

The fire was so hot it cracked the windshield of one of the fire trucks.

The chaos was unlike anything many of the veteran firefighters had ever seen.

"We went down Glenview and began clearing the block, going door to door making sure there was nobody trapped in their houses," South San Francisco firefighter Anthony Ottovoni said.

Then there was the terrifying discovery that the blast was so strong it had destroyed the main water line in the area.

"It's a sinking feeling, to say the least, because you count on that water being there, and if there was ever a time where you needed it, it was then," Forester said.

Crews managed to pull more than 3,000 feet of hoses toward the blast site.

"We were as close as we could get; there were citizens helping us drag fire hose and it was all hands on deck," Forester said.

The battle against the flames continued until the first responders finally called it a day at 9 a.m. Friday.

For Priolo, a San Bruno native, leaving the scene was almost as difficult as watching his neighbors and friends lose their homes and lives.

"It was probably one of the hardest things that I had to do, this is like my family," Priolo said.

Those first crews were so overwhelmed when they got there, they all said they thought the whole neighborhood would be destroyed and there would be many more lives lost. Looking back, they say what saved them was the team effort and that so many different agencies from all over the Bay Area rushed to the scene and worked together in those critical first few hours.

Residents face difficult choices

Residents in San Bruno's fire zone are continuing the painful process of dealing with their losses and trying to figure out what comes next.

Tuesday afternoon, some of the residents in 59 red-tagged areas were allowed to visit their residences for one hour accompanied by firefighters and building inspectors to get belongings from their homes.

Other residents are faced the decision as to whether or not to return to their home.

Bill Magoolaghan jumped at the chance to go home for a little while. Fire officials gave him 45 minutes notice to get to his house on Claremont Drive and start clearing it out. His house missed total destruction by a matter of feet. It has been upgraded from a red to yellow tag, meaning he may to repair the existing structure if he wants to.

"A lot of ceilings burned out in the back and on the sides of the room. There's a lot of water damage, insulation all over the floor," Magoolaghan said. "Whether we're comfortable moving back in, that's a whole different story. My wife and children ran screaming barefoot from the house, ran down the street with a fire ball behind them. It's kind of hard to bring the kids back to this neighborhood."

His insurance company will pay the rent on a four-bedroom Belmont house for at least six months. Magoolaghan says that should be plenty of time for him to figure out what he needs from PG&E to "make him whole" again as they have been promising.

"I started to realize that the question, 'What do I need?' is really the question, 'How can we compensate you for blowing up your neighborhood?'" Magoolaghan said.

Audrey Cantley came back to her green-tagged Glenview Drive home Sunday. Her front door was kicked in by fire fighters Thursday night, windows cracked from the heat and plastic pots and patio upholstery melted, but she is not afraid to return.

"It could happen anywhere, it could happen to anyone at anytime, it could be their city, it could be their street; and maybe I'm a fatalist or something but I believe if something's going to happen, something's going to happen," Cantley said.

For those whose homes were leveled, Tuesday was their first opportunity to begin to sift through the rubble.

"We're going to try and find any little memento we can find; to most people it would be junk but to us it would be treasure," resident Bob Pellegrini said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will tour the fire zone Wednesday.

Lawmakers offer legislative aid

Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have called on the Small Business Administration to declare San Bruno a disaster area. That would make both businesses and homeowners eligible for low-interest loans.

State Sen. Leland Yee, whose district includes the damaged neighborhood, Tuesday said he would introduce a disaster relief bill in Sacramento.

The bill would likely include property tax exemptions for homeowners, income tax deductions for people who have had to miss work and a year's worth of tax reimbursements for schools and local governments.

Federal investigators finish initial investigation

The National Transportation Safety Board has wrapped up the on site portion of its investigation into last Thursday's huge San Bruno fire. Investigators will head to Washington, DC where they will piece together the severed section of pipe to try and determine what caused it to rupture.

The NTSB is focusing on two key areas of concern as they examine the pipe. First, that it has a long seam where it was welded together and may have been susceptible to corrosion. They've also found a variety of small pieces called pups -- each individually welded in place to help the pipe make a dip under the road.

More modern pipes are bent to shape -- which leaves fewer weld points that could fail -- and then catch fire from something as simple as a nearby stove or car -- a microscopic examination will look for an answer.

CPUC sets up number to reported gas smell

The California Public Utilities Commission has established a toll-free number and e-mail address for anyone who noticed the smell. People can call (800) 789-0550 or send an e-mail SBFire@cpuc.ca.gov if they smelled the gas.

The NTSB has also set up a tip line for their investigation. They are interested in reports of a natural gas order or any plants dying. You can e-mail information or amature video related to this case to: sanbruno@ntsb.gov

ABC7 Continuing Coverage:
AUDIO: Fire dispatch recordings of San Bruno explosion
RAW VIDEO: Explosion captured on gas station video
RAW VIDEO: Reactions to explosion captured on video
RAW VIDEO: NTSB Monday afternoon update
Some San Bruno residents allowed to return
RAW VIDEO: NTSB Sunday afternoon update
RAW SKY7 VIDEO: Friday morning over San Bruno
VIDEO: Photographer's first-hand account of devastation
VIDEO: Eyewitness account
PHOTOS: San Bruno explosion
VIDEO: "I thought - this is judgment day"
VIDEO: Fire consumes neighborhood
VIDEO: Photographer captures images moments after blast

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