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Residents Try to Make Sense of Gas Explosion

Emergency workers patiently sifts through rubble of a burned down home, three days after a natural gas pipeline exploded into a deadly fireball in San Bruno, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
AP Photo
A gas station surveillance video obtained by CBS News captures the moment of the gas line explosion in San Bruno, Calif. The fire erupting from the earth turned the suburban neighborhood into an inferno as residents ran for their lives, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

Jacques Chiramberro and his daughter Anne-Marie escaped by climbing their back fence.

Scroll down to see raw video footage of the explosion.

"While we were up on that fence the heat from the flames was intense and the fence was hot so we got a little burnt, but overall we're good, we got out, we're happy," says Anne-Marie.

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Residents who lost most everything gathered with city officials Monday to talk about what went wrong and what will happen next. Survivors remember the heat, the noise and the shaking as flames shot hundreds of feet into the air.

"I opened the front door and saw that flame and that was it. I don't want nobody going through what we went through," says Ed Pellegrini.

The remains of four people have been found, four people are missing and 37 homes were destroyed in the explosion. At least 60 people were injured.

One resident, Walter Macaffrey, shot cell phone video from his balcony after warning his wife and children not to come home. Today, Macaffrey's balcony overlooks what's being called the zone of devastation.

The explosion ripped a 28-foot-long section of the gas pipeline out of the earth: a 30-inch high pressure transmission line that ran right under the neighborhood.

Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility that operates the pipeline, has almost 6,500 miles of major transportation pipelines in California. PG&E has been ordered by state regulators to inspect all of its gas lines making those in heavily populated areas a priority. The utility has set up a $100 million dollar fund to help residents of San Bruno recover and rebuild.

The money was intended to help victims meet their day-to-day needs and would be provided with no strings attached, said Chris Johns, president of PG&E.

The company previously gave the city of San Bruno $3 million to help cover its expenses related to the blast, Johns said.

"It is very important that this community know that there are funds, enough funds, to be able to rebuild their lives and this community," Johns said.

The announcement came shortly after residents of homes destroyed or badly damaged in the blast left a private meeting with PG&E and city officials. The residents were told they would be receiving $50,000 checks this week to get back on their feet, said Bob Pelligrini, 48, whose home was leveled.

The checks would not preclude residents from taking further legal action against PG&E, Pelligrini said.

Residents whose homes were yellow-tagged, meaning some damage, could have a chance to return to the dwellings as soon as Monday afternoon, said Aaron Aknin, San Bruno community development director. Those residents would be accompanied by building inspectors and given one hour to retrieve possessions.

Homeowners whose houses suffered major damage or were destroyed would initially be allowed to tour the blast area by bus and take photographs to submit as part of insurance claims, Aknin said.

They could set up one-on-one appointments later in the week to see their damaged properties up close.

Evacuees who fled after Thursday's blast but whose houses were not damaged began returning home Sunday.

The remains of at least four people have been found, and authorities have said four others were missing and at least 60 were injured, some critically. Two other people reported missing had been located, city spokeswoman Robyn Thaw said.

County Coroner Robert Foucrault said investigators were still trying to confirm whether some of the remains were human.

Meanwhile, federal investigators were probing why the line ruptured and the explosion sent a 28-foot segment of pipe onto a street some 100 feet away while creating a crater 167 feet long and 26 feet wide.

Crews crated up the pipeline segment along with two sections from either side of the ruptured segment to send to a federal lab in Washington, D.C., for further examination.

Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators want to speak with anyone who smelled gas in the days leading to the blast, especially anyone who reported the problem to PG&E or any other officials. Hart said investigators have not yet seen any record of gas leak complaints.

"We're pursuing those rumors, and we've obtained records - not only from PG&E but from other places where people might call. And so far, we have not been able to verify that anybody smelled gas and called it in," Hart said.

PG&E spokesman Andrew Souvall said there had been no gas leak complaints to the utility's call centers from the San Bruno neighborhood in the week before the blast.

Hart said investigators also want to talk to residents who might have noticed dead vegetation around the rupture spot, which can be a sign of a leak.