Death Toll May Rise in PG&E's Gas Blast in California; Five People Missing

Authorities said as many as five people remained missing yesterday as investigators searched for clues to the cause of a PG&E Corp. natural-gas pipeline blast that destroyed 37 homes in a San Francisco suburb.

The death toll remained at four people as officials couldn’t confirm earlier reports that the remains of two bodies were found at the site of the disaster, San Bruno city spokesman Steve Firpo said yesterday.

Five people were reported still missing after the Sept. 9 pipeline rupture and fire that burned a 15-acre residential area in San Bruno, California, Neil Telford, the city’s police chief, told residents yesterday at a town hall meeting.

Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is overseeing the probe into the cause of the explosion, began gathering evidence and making measurements yesterday at the site, which is about two miles (3.2 kilometers) west of San Francisco International Airport.

The blast left a crater in the street 167 feet (50.9 meters) long by 26 feet wide, NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart said at a press conference yesterday. Federal authorities discovered that a 28-foot piece of pipe that was blown about 100 feet out of the ground was seamed and segmented, Hart said. Officials will be looking at why the pipe was constructed in this manner, he said.

California lawmakers pressed investigators, who said it may be 18 months before they can conclude their work, to quickly determine the cause of the incident.

“We cannot wait for answers to this,” U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said at a press event yesterday morning in San Bruno.

Last Inspection

PG&E, based in San Francisco, last conducted an inspection of its pipeline in November 2009 and performed an annual gas- leak assessment on it in March 2010, Geisha Williams, senior vice president of energy delivery of PG&E’s Pacific Gas and Electric utility said yesterday during an interview.

Williams declined to discuss the results of the two inspections.

PG&E has not been able to confirm reports that residents made calls to the utility complaining of a gas smell in the days before the explosion, Chris Johns, president of PG&E’s Pacific Gas and Electric, said.

The utility has searched about two-thirds of its phone records from the neighborhood from Sept. 1 through Sept. 9, Johns said. Utility crews weren’t at the site at the time of the blast, he said.

The company has $992 million in liability insurance for damages caused by fire, according to a public filing on Sept. 10.

“If it is ultimately determined that we were responsible for the cause of the incident, we will take accountability,” PG&E said in an e-mailed statement.

Financial results “could be materially adversely affected” if, after the explosion is investigated, insurance is insufficient or unavailable, PG&E said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Mark Chediak in San Francisco at mchediak@bloomberg.net; Ryan Flinn in San Francisco at rflinn@bloomberg.net.

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