Survivors of a deadly gas pipeline explosion that ravaged a suburban neighborhood near San Francisco gave poignant testimony before California regulators on Tuesday, as officials sought input on how to strengthen crucial safety rules for the industry.
Federal transportation officials cited the San Bruno blast, as well other recent fatal explosions in Pennsylvania, as they called this week for pipeline companies to speed up efforts to repair and replace aging oil and gas lines.
After the 44-year-old transmission line blew in California on the evening of Sept. 9, eight people died, dozens were injured, and 38 homes overlooking the San Francisco Bay were destroyed by fire.
Now, nearly seven months later, many residents have grown anxious for federal officials to determine a cause, and indignant that the state has yet to fine the pipeline's owner, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for the accident.
"They are going to do the best they can right now to pacify us ... They say everything you want to hear but they don't do what they are supposed to do," said Chris Torres, whose 81-year-old mother Elizabeth Torres died and whose two sisters were badly burned in the gas-fueled fireball. "It may have only been eight people killed but what about the other people with bandages around their faces and around their hands?"
Tuesday evening, members of the California Public Utilities Commission vowed to use residents' and local officials' testimony as they craft new pipeline safety regulations. Tuesday's meeting was the first of three statewide field hearings, with additional hearings in Los Angeles and Santa Rosa to be held this spring.
"I am personally and professionally committed to making sure that the horrible tragedy that occurred on Sept. 9 last year never happens again," Commissioner Mike Florio said. "We came here to San Bruno because there is no other place to start the effort that we're undertaking to thoroughly review pipeline safety."
For residents directly impacted by the tragedy, however, the promise of eventual reforms offered little immediate comfort for the explosion's ongoing legacy.
"It shouldn't have to take the deaths of eight people ... it shouldn't have to take the destruction of so many houses for our gas company and the organization that oversees them to become so fully invested in pipeline safety," said Bill Magoolaghan, whose home was seriously damaged in the flames. "Without serious penalties and without the state and federal government enacting laws, the San Bruno disaster is destined to happen again."
Federal investigators' first report on the ruptured Pacific Gas & Electric Co. line found that after a brief power failure boosted pressure in the pipe and the fireball erupted, it took PG&E crews about an hour and a half to shut off manual valves to stop gas from flowing. Investigators later revealed the pipe had flawed welds, even though the utility's records showed the pipe was seamless.
At least 50 people have sued PG&E claiming the company was negligent in maintaining its pipes. Several people have filed wrongful death suits.
PG&E initially planned to replace the pipeline, but residents protested and persuaded the company to relocate it, saying they wouldn't feel safe if the line remained.
Poignant mementos honoring those lost in the explosion still dot the roads near the blast site, now a black gash carved into the canyon. Grass has sprouted on many lots leveled in the inferno, where homeowners have yet to rebuild.
Later this month, community members are set to plant maple and sequoia trees at a high school to honor the victims.