TODAY   |  September 10, 2010

Deadly blaze destroys Calif. community

Firefighting crews poured into San Bruno, Calif., to contain a massive fire which authorities think was started by a gas-line explosion. Several people are feared dead. NBC’s Miguel Almaguer reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> on earth in the city of san bruno outside san francisco this morning it was a terrible scene.

>> firefighters are pouring water on the smoldering wreckage after a huge explosion on thursday night sent flames ripping through a residential neighborhood. now, officials aren't exactly sure what sparked the blast, but a ruptured gas main fueled the intense fire.

>> one fire captain says by the time his firefighters arrived, dozens of homes had already been consumed by the flames, even though the fire station is only a few blocks away.

>> we're going to get right to this story. nbc's miguel almaguer is on the scene. miguel , what can you tell us?

>> reporter: matt, good morning. at least 75 people were rushed to the hospital overnight, some of them injured critically. we know at least one person is dead, although that number may rise. some 53 homes were completely destroyed. more than 100 others damaged. it's believed the explosion may have been caused by a ruptured gas line. and as one witness said here, they described the scene as " hell on earth ." the explosion ripped through san bruno just before 7:00 local time , the dinner hour in this suburb just south of san francisco . a blast so violent, some thought it was an earthquake, or worse, a jetliner crash. it was neither.

>> i went out and seen this big fireball. first thing i thought was, oh, god, something went up, and it was intense with flames.

>> reporter: a monster, gas-fed fireball with flames shooting as high as 100 feet into the air was burning so hot, it obscured everything around it. asphalt melted, windows shattered, the sky turned black and the sound, what witnesses describe as a roaring and a groaning, could be heard for miles.

>> just shook your body. you could feel the intensity of the fire, and i never felt anything like it.

>> reporter: as twilight turned to night, the fire's footprint continued to grow. it wasn't one house or two, it was dozens engulfed in a wind-whipped, gas-filled fury today make matters worse, the explosion may have ripped through the neighborhood's water main , making a nearby fire hydrant unusable.

>> even if we had that water supply , it wouldn't have -- we could not have extinguished that fire until the gas line was shut down.

>> reporter: with temperatures in the thousands of degrees, the only way in was from the air. firefighting planes roared overhead, dumping retardant in the middle of single-lane streets to keep the fire from spreading. helicopters made targeted assaults from one rooftop to another, but so much had already been lost and the fire's fuel seemed never-ending.

>> we have declared a disaster, a local disaster in the city of san bruno , which has been confirmed through the state, and we will be accessing federal resources.

>> reporter: soon, it looked more like a raging grass fire , not the middle of a crowded neighborhood. a string of burning embers lit up the night, a fiery domino incinerating block after block. throughout the night, firefighters struggled to get the upper hand on the inferno as one fire seemed to burn itself out, a fresh one would start. the city's fire chief said he's never seen anything like it.

>> no, and i don't want to again.

>> reporter: although the cause of the fire remains uncertain, the local gas company, pg&e, acknowledged that one of its gas transmission lines had ruptured.

>> if the investigation were to turn up that some of our facilities were involved in this, we will do what's right.

>> reporter: as the fire slowly turned from an inferno into something still terrible but manageable, rescuers began driving street by street looking for anyone trapped or injured, but fire crews say getting to the epicenter of the explosion probably won't happen until later today , a crater in the middle of a neighborhood that will never be the same. over the last few days, some neighbors had complained of a gas smell in this area. investigators are looking into that. in the meantime, come daybreak here, search dogs will look at the blast zone and comb that area looking for anyone who didn't make it out. matt?

>> miguel almaguer in san bruno