SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- A construction site gas line explosion ignited an inferno in a San Francisco neighborhood Wednesday afternoon, burning five buildings before crews were able to cap the gas.
PG&E and San Francisco Fire confirmed that the gas line feeding the massive over 30-foot-high flames had been turned off at 3:38 p.m., almost two and a half hours after the explosion.
The incident happened at the corner of Geary Blvd. and Parker Ave. at 1:18 p.m. Wednesday in the city's Jordan Park neighborhood between Laurel Heights and the Richmond District. A two-story building on the corner - site of Hong Kong Lounge II restaurant and residences on the second floor - was extensively damaged by the fire.
PHOTO GALLERY: Explosion Starts Gas-Fueled Fire In San Francisco
Police and fire department personnel evacuated people within a one-block radius of the fire, the fire department said.
"I saw this spew of gas coming out of where they were working, and I said, 'That's a gas main,' said witness John Anglin. "And within probably five seconds, all of a sudden it ignited and the flames just shot, like, straight up the air, probably 20, 30 feet up in the air. It was crazy."
San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said workers with a private contractor were installing a fiber-optic cable line when they ripped into a gas line with an excavator. The flames enveloped the excavator and spread quickly to the nearby restaurant.
The smoke was thick in the area and the flames from the gas line were reaching above the buildings two-and-a-half hours after the original explosion.
Five restaurant workers originally reported as missing were later accounted for, the fire department said.
"I was walking through the intersection just before it exploded and I looked up and saw a bunch of people in front of me screaming," said witness Michael Comstock "So I turned around I saw the flame growing behind me. It just kind of started erupting and I actually thought it was a bomb for a second. So I just started taking off down the street."
The fire reached a third alarm as of 1:50 p.m. At least five buildings were involved, according to the fire department.
"We were in the store, we heard almost like an air noise," Michael, a worker at a nearby Verizon store, told KPIX 5. "It sounded like pressure was building up. I saw people running across the street so I ran out. We saw flames everywhere. Construction workers saying, 'get back.' They said someone is probably dead. I'm just hoping everything is okay."
Sisters Cindy and Judy Chan were inside the Hong Kong Flower Lounge II restaurant--a Top 100 restaurant on San Francisco Chronicle's list--celebrating Chinese New Year with their parents, sitting right next to the fire when it erupted.
"I heard popping sounds. I thought it was fire crackers because it's Chinese New Year," said Cindy Chan. Within seconds, all they could see was a bright orange glow surrounding the restaurant.
The Chans said restaurant staff escorted everyone in the restaurant through the kitchen and and a back banquet room to get out of the endangered restaurant.
A number of patients from an endoscopy center down the street were evacuated. At least one school in the area, Roosevelt Middle School three blocks west of the fire, was reportedly being evacuated. People were being urged to avoid the area.
The heavily-traveled corridor of Geary Boulevard was closed in both directions at the site of the fire and was expected to remain closed overnight for repairs as crews had to dig up the roadway in the effort to cap the gas leak.
A number of San Francisco Muni routes, including the always busy 38 Geary line, have been rerouted.
Some 300 customers were left without gas service and another 235 customers without power following the explosion and fire, but most of the electricity was completely restored before the night ended, according to PG&E. Only 41 of the 235 were without power at 10:15 p.m.
PG&E said late Wednesday evening that there was no estimated time of when service will be up. They will have 7 customer reps working overnight to alert customers when their gas comes back online.
At 7 a.m. Thursday morning, they will have 20 to 30 customer representatives in the area.
Many of those who were evacuated were not going to be going to able to return Wednesday. An evacuation center was set up at St. Mary's Cathedral to house displaced residents.
Many evacuees said they didn't have time to gather their belongings.
The American Red Cross mobilized its services right away, providing those displaced with a place to gather. They handed out warm blankets and coffee.
"We heard a rumor, 100 people displaced," said Berry Gruber, a Red Cross volunteer. Very few needed the Red Cross's services because, although buildings were burned, no one was injured in the explosion. The Red Cross left at around 8 p.m.
The displaced seemed to have found places to stay, since not many were left over at the evacuation centers at the end of the night.
PG&E spokesman Blair Jones said the response to the fire was complex, as it's possible there were multiple gas lines, water, electric and fiber optic cable all in the area of the fire.
"It's a complex array of utilities down there," Jones said.
He said state law requires workers to hand-dig through the street's asphalt as part of their response.
PG&E has laid out a timeline for the repair steps. First, crews will assess the extent of the damage before removing air from the line before gas can be resupplied.
Afterwards, technicians must visit every home and business to check the meters. Finally, workers must visit again to turn the meters on, conduct safety checks and relight pilot lights. Power customers must be present for the second visit.
MasTec, the construction company that was working on the site where the gas line exploded, released a statement late Wednesday evening:
"On behalf of all of us at MasTec, we want to express our deep concern for those affected by the gas line rupture earlier today. We are working in close coordination with the public safety officials and understand that no injuries or fatalities were reported in connection with the incident. We thank the emergency personnel, firefighters and other first responders for their quick actions today and for their service to the community. Along with others, we have initiated an investigation of the event and that investigation is ongoing at this time. We appreciate the interest many have expressed but must reserve further public comment until our investigation has concluded. Until then, we will continue to cooperate with the appropriate authorities and engage with those most impacted," said John Higgins, Group President of the Utility Services Group at MasTec.
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