Police officers and firefighters who responded to a massive explosion and fire that tore through a San Bruno neighborhood on Thursday described the panic and confusion they experienced upon arrival at the emergency, but they credited citizen volunteers and a massive response by San Mateo County agencies with saving lives and preventing the fire from spreading.
"I realized immediately how overwhelmed we were going to be," said San Bruno police Sgt. Michael Guldner, one of the first of more than 400 police officers and firefighters from across the state who responded to the Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood when a 30-inch gas transmission pipeline ruptured and ignited into a giant fireball at around 6:15 p.m.
The explosion fueled a fire that killed four people, injured more than 50, and destroyed at least 37 homes.
"For most of us it was probably bigger than anything we've had to deal with," Central County Fire Department Capt. Jake Pelk said.
According to a half-dozen first-responding police and fire personnel who told firsthand accounts of the disaster at a news conference this afternoon, it wasn't immediately clear what had exploded.
"Initially we thought a jet airplane went down from San Francisco airport," San Bruno fire Capt. Bill Forester said. "The sound, the noise of it was deafening. It sounded like a jet engine could still be running."
Firefighters were at first plagued by lack of a water supply, Millbrae Fire Chief Dennis Haag said. The initial pipeline explosion knocked out the water main that supplied the neighborhood.
"It was sinking feeling, to say the least, because we count on that water being there," Pelk said.
Firefighters were eventually able to begin fighting the fire by laying 3,000 to 4,000 feet of water hose across Sneath Lane.
South San Francisco police Detective Ken Chetcuti, a San Bruno native, described the scene when he first got to the neighborhood.
"I came up and there was chaos," he said. "People racing up the hill."
Chetcuti said he joined other police officers, firefighters and members of the community who went into the burning neighborhood to try to evacuate as many homes as possible.
Citizens volunteered to pull fire hoses, evacuate homes and even drive burn victims out of the neighborhood to waiting ambulances.
"Thank God for the people of San Bruno," Guldner said. "People came out of the woodwork to provide assistance."
San Bruno police Officer Scott Rogge added, "Those are the true heroes, the people of the community."