At least one person has been found dead following a massive blast and fire likely sparked by a broken gas line in a residential area of San Bruno, California. However there have been other reports that three people have been killed, with one body found on a footpath after the huge explosion at around 6pm local time sent a ball of flame soaring an estimated 300 feet into the air, according to witnesses interviewed on local news.
In the latest update, 53 houses were destroyed or on fire as the blaze quickly spread through the area, with more than 120 damaged. The flames were hot enough to crack a fire engine windshield.
There has been no official estimate of the number of people missing from their homes.
The utility company that serves the San Francisco Bay area said one of its gas lines ruptured in the vicinity of the blast, which left a giant crater and sent flames tearing across several suburban blocks in San Bruno.
“If it is ultimately determined that we were responsible for the cause of the incident, we will take accountability,” Pacific Gas and Electric Co said.
At one stage flames could be seen shooting at least 90 feet in the air as firefighters desperately tried to control the fire and residents tried to flee.
Eyewitness accounts said a low rumbling sound could be heard before a fireball exploded out of the ground on a vacant lot. People as far as 700m away say they felt the boom and heat of the blast. “I heard a rumbling, my radio went off and all of a sudden there was a boom, boom!” a witness told FOX40.
Local church pastor Leigh Bishop told the San Francisco Chronicle he heard a massive blast. “It was absolutely frightening,” Mr Bishop said. “A huge yellowing billow of flame. I thought it was right behind our church building and ran in to pull the fire alarm and get everyone out of the church.”
“It’s still going tremendously. It was a huge, huge fireball. The initial explosion was just deafening.”
Dozens Injured: Count Still Rising
There have been reports of more than 70 people injured, with KTVU saying dozens had been taken to one local hospital alone, six of those in critical condition with burns.
Authorities were using aircraft – one helicopter, two air attack planes and four air tankers – to drop water on the fire. It took several hours to bring it under control.
California Fire spokesman Daniel Berland told Fox News that 25 fire engines and approximately 125 personnel were helping locals fight the blaze.
The San Mateo County Sheriff activated the reverse-911 system to alert people in a three-quarter mile radius of a voluntary evacuation, ABC News said.
An evacuation area was set up at the San Bruno Veterans Memorial Recreation Center and residents were also gathering at local shopping centers.
Some residents told FOX40 that they had been smelling gas in the area for up to three weeks. By 8:30pm the gas line was thought to have been shut off but the fire ball was still burning and spot fires had already spread across several blocks, jumping from house to house and tree to tree.
Highway 35 and Highway 85 in the area of the fire were closed and SFO Airport told pilots to switch to instruments due to poor visibility. At least 5000 PG&E customers were without power.