Reports show PG&E employees confused amid San Bruno crisis 

At 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 9, Michael Hickey stood outside his front door, staring to the south, where smoke was pouring into the sky like water from a hose.

He knew just what to do.

Within moments, he was driving to the PG&E yard where he works. He called his supervisors, he rallied his co-workers, he picked up his truck and his tools. He waited there for instructions from his superiors, but when none came, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

He drove to the valves on either side of the explosion and turned them off. Within moments, the fire was out.

Hickey’s on-his-toes reaction, and those of his colleagues on the ground, starkly contrasted with the reaction of some PG&E employees who were actually tasked to handle the disaster as depicted in interviews conducted by federal investigators, released Thursday.

The National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency investigating the disaster that took eight lives, destroyed dozens of homes  and reduced a neighborhood to ash, Thursday released 500 pages of transcribed interviews with PG&E employees. Among those interviewed were employees like Hickey, who responded to the disaster without instruction, and ultimately contributed to shutting down the geyser of gas-fueled flames.

But other interviews depict the confusion and repeated communication failures that plagued PG&E’s official emergency response.

For example, in an interview with PG&E Senior Transmission Coordinator Marc Ceniceros, conducted a week after the disaster, investigators pointed to a text message he received from a co-worker at 7:39 p.m. the night of the explosion — nearly an hour and a half after the explosion occurred. The text — sent over PG&E’s paging system — seemed to indicate the sender was unaware the explosion had even happened.

“Hello, everyone,” the message said, and then stated that a piece of operations was being transferred to another station. “Thanks and have a safe and great evening.”

At that very moment, Hickey and his co-workers shut off gas flow to San Bruno. But that wasn’t communicated over PG&E’s paging system for at least 20 minutes.

In fact, one would never know the explosion even occurred if one relied on the gas-logging system, PG&E’s system to record events related to its gas transmission and distribution network. In one interview, investigators asked PG&E Transmission Coordinator Joaquin Genera why there’s “nothing in the log” indicating the explosion.
“I don’t know — I don’t know,” Genera said.

Investigator Peter Katchmar then noted that an incident just two hours earlier had been carefully logged.

“Per incident in San Ramon is false,” Katchmar read from the log, according to the transcript. “Somehow cardboard caught fire and the heat caused the indexes to melt. There was no release of gas, no damage to structure, and the meter is being  replaced at this time. Whew!”

“W-h-e-w, exclamation,” Katchmar spelled out. “And I guess my question is, if they put that in there, why wouldn’t there be anything about this San Bruno event?”  

Examiner Staff Writer Shaun Bishop contributed to this report.

Geological trigger event is speculated

In an interview with federal investigators released Thursday, a high-ranking PG&E official speculated that “some sort of geologic event” may have triggered the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion.

Federal investigators have not yet reached a conclusion about what caused the gas transmission pipeline to rupture and ignite on Sept. 9. And PG&E officials have been careful not to publicly speculate.

But in an interview just eight days after the disaster, PG&E integrity management chief Robert Fassett pointed to the flaw built into decades-old pipeline and hypothesized that something triggered it to fail: “I think there may have been some kind of geologic event, perhaps, that occurred. Whether it’s settling of the pipe, undermining the pipe from leaking water main, leaking sewer, something.”

Asked whether utility officials still believe a geologic event may have triggered the event, spokesman Joseph Molica said the company is refraining from discussing potential causes during the ongoing federal investigation.

Peter Knudsen, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said it is one possibility being investigated.

UC Berkeley engineering professor Robert Bea said that publicly available data does not point to a conclusion that soil settlement caused the explosion. Typically, he said, geological shifts must be very large to seriously stress a pipeline. He said a nearby pipeline has not shown any signs suggesting geological shifts severe enough to cause a pipe to burst.

Examiner Staff Writer Shaun Bishop contributed to this report.

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