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Response Time Probed after Deadly Gas Explosion

A massive fire erupts in San Bruno, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010. Fire crews tried to douse the remnants of an enormous blaze and account for the residents of dozens of homes Friday after a gas line ruptured and an explosion ripped through in a neighborhood near San Francisco, killing at least four people and likely more. (AP Photo/Michael Sah)
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Federal investigators are examining whether Pacific Gas & Electric workers followed proper emergency procedures after a gas transmission line exploded into an inferno that killed at least four people and destroyed nearly 40 homes in a San Francisco suburb.

National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman Christopher Hart said that constructing a timeline of how PG&E crews reacted would be important to determining why it took the utility nearly two hours to turn off the gas that fueled last week's devastating blaze.

"We will be looking at how quickly and effectively they responded, and that's one of the reasons the timeline is so important to us," Hart said.

The utility has said the pipeline, built in 1956, had to be shut down manually because it was not equipped with automatic shut-off valves that newer lines have. At a Monday night town hall meeting, PG&E vice president Geisha Williams told residents there was a delay in stopping the flow of gas to the San Bruno neighborhood because it wasn't safe for workers to get near the explosion site.

Hart said Tuesday that the two shut-off valves for the ruptured section of pipe were located one and 1 ½ miles away from the blast.

A preliminary report including elements of this key timeline could be publicly released within a month, Hart said. Investigators planned to gather evidence in the area through the end of the week before returning to Washington.

The NTSB made recommendations to PG&E for improving its emergency procedures following a 1981 gas line rupture in downtown San Francisco and would determine if workers observed the protocols, Hart said.

Hart noted that it is common to have manual shut-off valves for pipes of that size, rather than automatic shut-offs.

Meanwhile, state and federal lawmakers have called on PG&E to upgrade any other pipelines in heavily populated areas that now can only be closed down by hand.

California Assemblyman Jerry Hill, a Democrat whose district includes San Bruno, said Tuesday he was drafting a bill that would require the utility to install automatic and remote shut-off valves to minimize future damage.

"Since only seven percent of the nation's gas lines are classified as a 'high consequence area' like the San Bruno line that exploded, the least we can do is focus resources on these gas lines within California," Hill said.

Investigators shipped a 28-foot-long section of 30-inch pipe that blew out of the ground to a Washington lab for forensic tests that could reveal if the explosion was caused by a small leak or a "catastrophic failure."

So far, investigators have not received any reports from residents who complained about gas smells in the week leading up to the blast, Hart said.

On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood introduced legislation seeking tighter oversight of the nation's pipelines and stronger penalties for safety violations.

LaHood previously announced the allocation of $5.9 million for 17 research projects to improve pipeline safety. The awards will pay for the development of research projects that address the detection, prevention and characterization of pipeline leaks and pipeline construction quality, as well as alternative fuels transportation.

Also Tuesday, police officers, firefighters and paramedics who were among the first to reach the blast recounted the horrifying scene they encountered. Rushing against the fleeing crowds, they initially believed a jetliner from nearby San Francisco International Airport had gone down in the neighborhood or that terrorists had struck - or both.

"I was concerned about a secondary explosion. I didn't know what we had," San Bruno Fire Capt. Bill Forester recalled. "I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw it was not an airplane - there would have been more victims."

It took almost a half-hour to determine that the massive fireball consuming a San Francisco suburb wasn't a plane crash.

What turned out to be a gas line rupture last Thursday fueled a roaring blaze so intense it cracked windshields of the closest fire engines and sent four firefighters to the hospital for smoke inhalation. The blast also broke a water main, leaving all hydrants in the area dry.

"It was a sinking feeling," Forester said. "We needed massive water for this thing - and we discovered there was no water."

While residents helped crews drag hoses from nearly 4,000 feet away to supply water, other first-responders, including South San Francisco police Lt. Ron Carlino, pushed into smoke-filled homes to check for survivors. Searing heat prevented them from getting too close to the heart of the fire.

"We were left helpless," Carlino said. "The wall of fire was incredibly, intensely hot. We were helpless knowing there were people we couldn't get to."

Many of the 400 police officers and firefighters who responded to the explosion acted despite the dangers: Some were fighting for a neighborhood they grew up in, the homes of friends and streets where children played.

"I saw smoke and flames, and I knew I had to go," said South San Francisco police Detective Ken Chetcuti, who grew up in the area. "I was thinking to myself that I knew a lot of people in that neighborhood."

Authorities said Tuesday that three people remained missing, all of whom lived at the same address. About 10 investigators were working to locate them, said San Bruno police Chief Neil Talford.

The San Mateo County coroner identified Elizabeth Torres, 81, who lived just yards from the source of the explosion, as one of the people killed. Her two daughters and son-in-law were seriously injured and remained hospitalized with burn injuries, according to the woman's grandson, Frank Torres.

Also killed were Jessica Morales, 20, Jacqueline Greig, 44, and her daughter, Janessa, 13.