911 recordings give insight into San Bruno blast

(Brian Carmody)

January 24, 2011 6:25:46 PM PST
The ABC7 I-Team used the California Public Records Act to obtain 911 recordings from the San Bruno explosion. On the recording, the entire event can be heard playing out -- from the first report, to the confusion that it was a plane crash to word of the missing, the dead and the injured.

From the first 911 call just after 6 p.m. the evening of Sept. 9, it was clear it was no routine incident.

Caller: "There was a big explosion and fire..."
Fire Dispatch: "OK."
Caller: "...in the Brentwood area, it looks like."

Caller: "It's two houses down the street from the explosion, I was able to see it up close from my house and it felt like an earthquake."

Fire Dispatch: "What is it on fire, do you know?"
Caller: "I don't know what happened, but it's exploding and I'm a good 50 yards away and I can feel heat from it."

Some residents stayed with their homes and called the San Mateo County Fire Department for help. Others ran for their lives.

Caller: "I live very close to the fire, too, we just ran out with what we had on."

Caller: "Where the hell is the fire department? We're on Claremont in San Bruno. I've been out here for 15 minutes, there's no fire department here."

While fire crews scramble to respond, San Mateo County dispatch tries to verify reports of a plane crash. But all aircraft out of SFO are accounted for and some calls from the public point to a gas main explosion.

Caller: "I don't think anyone's picked up on the fact that there very well could be a high pressure gas main involved."
Fire Dispatch: "I think it's the fuel actually from the aircraft, but I will let them know that, OK? Thank you."

Fire Dispatch: "What's on fire there?"
Caller: "It's a gas pipe. It's a serious fire back up at the house across the street from me."

Caller: "The flames are about 150 feet in the air. It is big."

Still, emergency officials somehow conclude it was a plane crash.

Fire Dispatch: "We have a large aircraft down, multiple patients, multiple rescues, multiple occupied residences on fire."

Reports roll in of the missing and the injured.

CHP Dispatch: "85-year-old female, burned and smoke inhalation."

Caller: "My girlfriend, I had to take her to the hospital, she's burnt. Her house is one of the ones that's on fire."
Fire Dispatch: "OK."
Caller: "Her mother is missing, though."

Local hospitals, seeing a surge of burn patients, call for information.

Hospital: Hi, this is Debbie at Mills Peninsula."
Fire Dispatch: "Yes."
Hospital: "We have received 5 patients. We were wondering about how many more we can expect and what's going on, what can you tell us?"
Fire Dispatch: "We don't know how many more you can expect."

While they are dealing with such an immense tragedy, first responders have to handle their normal workload -- the heart attacks and the minor accidents.

A fire dispatcher spends eight precious minutes on the phone, trying to get to the bottom of a scratch on a car fender. She even had to call in a translator.

Translator: "It's a silver grey sedan car."
Fire Dispatch: "OK, tell her I'll get somebody on the way, I have to go."

The dispatch calls give a clearer picture of how difficult the job can be for emergency personnel.