SAN FRANCISCO – A gas explosion in San Francisco shot a tower of flames into the sky and burned five buildings including one of the city’s popular restaurants before firefighters brought the blaze under control. There were no injuries.
Wednesday’s explosion and fire sent panicked residents and workers in the city’s Inner Richmond neighborhood fleeing into the streets as flames shot above the rooftops of nearby three-story buildings.
“We just felt the shaking, and the next thing we knew, people were banging on the door to tell people it’s time to start evacuating,” said resident Nick Jalali, 28, who was cooking at home when the electricity cut out.
Utility crews put out the fire about three hours after private construction workers cut a natural gas line, which ignited the fire, San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said. Authorities initially said five workers were missing, but the entire construction crew was found safe, and no other injuries were reported.
Hayes-White said the construction crew was apparently working on fiber-optic wires.
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Five buildings were damaged, including a building housing Hong Kong Lounge II, a reservations-required dim sum restaurant that is a fixture on the city’s “best of” lists. The fire began on the street in front of the restaurant.
Officials evacuated several nearby buildings, including a medical clinic and apartments, Hayes-White said. Vehicles on a busy street were rerouted as authorities cordoned off the bustling neighborhood.
Caroline Gasparini, 24, who lives kitty-corner from where the fire was, said she and her housemate were in their living room when the windows started rattling. She looked up to see flames reflected in the glass.
“We went into crisis mode,” Gasparini said. “We grabbed our shoes, grabbed our laptops and grabbed our passports and just left.”
Gasparini said they saw employees of the burning restaurant run out the back door and people fleeing down the block.
Firefighters worked to keep the fire from spreading while Pacific Gas & Electric crews tried to shut off the natural gas line.
“It’s complicated,” Hayes-White said of stopping the flow of gas through the damaged pipe. Though she later acknowledged that “as a fire chief and a resident, yes, I would have liked to see it mitigated.”
PG&E spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin said state excavation rules required crews to hand dig around multiple subsurface pipelines of various sizes before they were eventually able to “squeeze” a four-inch plastic line.
She said since the fire was contained to a limited area, the utility had to weigh the threat from the fire with the risk that would come from more drastic action.
“Had we turned the gas off to a transmission system, we would have shut off gas to nearly the entire city of San Francisco,” she said. “The objective of this was to turn the gas off safely and as quickly as possible.”
Subbotin said PG&E would shut off a transmission line in an earthquake.
PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty stressed that the workers who cut the gas line are not affiliated with the utility, which is under heightened scrutiny over its natural gas pipelines. A PG&E pipeline exploded under a neighborhood south of San Francisco in 2010, killing eight people and wiping out a neighborhood in suburban San Bruno.
A U.S. judge PG&E $3 million for a conviction on six felony charges of failing to properly maintain the pipeline and the utility remains under a federal judge’s watch in that case.
Associated Press writers Paul Elias, Olga R. Rodriguez and Juliet Williams in San Francisco contributed to this report.