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Photographer's first person account of the San Bruno gas line explosion and fire

Reported location of San Bruno gas explosion
Reported location of San Bruno gas explosion
Google Inc. (Fair use)

It was just after 6 P.M.Thursday evening when a huge explosion rocked my neighborhood. It sounded like long roaring thunder but lasted way longer than thunder should. I've yawned through plenty of earthquakes but this was no earthquake. Soon after, the power went out. A quick scan of the area confirmed something was on fire but it was hard to tell what caused it. Smoke is filling up the sky quickly and at varying times, the area emits an amber glow as the gas erupts up to 300' in the air.

I don't have a TV. Being a bleeding edge internet junkie, I get all my content on the internet and this was one time when good old analog media would have come in handy. Even an AM radio would have been better than an internet connection. A quick scan on the internet provided only brief blurbs about a possible plane crash but that was refuted early on. The FAA and spokesman for SFO said there were no reports of planes going down.

With no power and daylight quickly fading, I grabbed my camera and headed out to look for the source of the fire and explosion. As soon as I got outside, it was evident something big was going on. People were milling about and standing outside. The scene was not quite pandemonium but it was close to controlled chaos. The police had already blocked off approaching roads so there was no way to get near.

It's doubtful my Alexa website ranking and page view statistics would have impressed them so I drove around trying to find another way in. A quick call to my friend Ken as a lifeline made navigation easier. He was able to confirm from early internet reports where the explosion was located. Being familiar with the area, I quickly realized there is only about 3 entrances to that neighborhood. By now, there are traffic jams on most roads leading to the area. There's no point in adding to the confusion so I turn around and go to my personal evacuation center aka 24 hour Starbucks.

As I approach El Camino Real I see over a dozen ambulances pass by. This can't be good but at least they are heading to the scene instead of coming from the scene. While waiting for my power to come back on at Starbucks, I see a regular parade of service workers stream in and out, some delivering coffee to their colleagues.

I stopped by the Bayhill Shopping Center where the initial evacuation center was setup at around 12:30 am and there were still a lot of activity there, mostly consisting of media and service personnel. Six hours after the initial explosion, fires are still burning and the smell of smoke is still prevalent in the air. Buses had been brought in to evacuate the stranded to Veterans Recreation Center at 251 City Park Way in San Bruno.

The nearby Lucky supermarket was asked by Cal Fire to stay opened 24 hours to provide supplies. When I was in line at checkout, the guy in front of me was buying supplies consisting of about 90% bottled water for the fire fighters. You can imagine how 1200 degree heat hot enough to melt windshields can dehydrate people at the scene. He said the fire was about 50% contained as of 1 a.m.

Among those I interviewed, a common theme emerges. No one had ever experienced anything of this magnitude in the area. The closest that comes to mind is the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. In many ways, this was like an earthquake. There were no warnings and this is a reminder that Californians need to be prepared for sudden disasters. It reminded me that the internet cannot be relied upon for breaking news. It's a good thing I have a hand-cranked powered AM radio. Luckily, this was a very localized event so cell traffic and general infrastructure were not affected.

Some reports place the initial explosion at Glenview Dr & Earl Ave which is less than mile from me. I live to write and shoot another day.

Check here for a complete account of this event with up to date breaking news.


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