Gov. Schwarzenegger gets close look at California gas line blast site; wiped tears from eyes
SAN BRUNO, Calif. – Fresh off a weeklong trade mission to Asia, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday made his first official stop in California the site of a massive gas line explosion at a San Francisco suburb.
Nearly 40 homes were destroyed and at least four people were killed last week in the San Bruno neighborhood.
Three people are still listed as missing, authorities said. They all lived at the same address, just yards from the source of the blast.
Schwarzenegger held a news conference and was briefed individually by city, state and federal officials, at least one of whom prompted the governor to wipe tears from his eyes. He also talked with some residents and first responders informally, according to a spokeswoman.
When asked why he did not end his trip to Asia and return immediately to California, Schwarzenegger said he trusted Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, a fellow Republican and the state's acting governor while Schwarzenegger was out of the country.
The governor said that the day after the explosion, he spoke to President Barack Obama by telephone and requested a federal disaster declaration.
Speaking from a vantage point overlooking a massive crater and destroyed homes, Schwarzenegger credited emergency personnel and others for their fast response.
His backdrop was the charred, barren trees, mangled houses, and a San Bruno fire command vehicle with a map taped on its side showing the blast site, affected homes and state wildfires.
"Every fire expert can tell you that what you do the first few hours is what counts and I think they responded quickly those first few hours," Schwarzenegger said.
He did not say if that included PG&E officials, who have been criticized for being slow in turning off a valve controlling the gas.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. President Chris Johns told reporters that manual valves, like the ones workers had to shut in order to close off the flow of natural gas in the pipeline, are used by utilities nationwide.
Johns said the company responded immediately and suggested that heavy traffic might have contributed to a delay in getting the valves closed after the explosion.
Safety is a core company value, he said.
"There is nothing more urgent than maintaining the safety of our pipelines and of our electric lines," Johns said.
The governor took the microphone back as reporters peppered Johns with questions.
"I will make sure that we will get every single detail," Schwarzenegger said, promising a thorough and open investigation. "I'm back now and I'm going to drill down into that information."
California state Sen. Leland Yee, speaking to an Associated Press reporter after the press conference, said it was a "no brainer" that there should have been automatic valves.
"Their pipes are what we call a high risk area and there ought to have been an automatic shut-off," said Yee, who represents the neighborhood.
NTSB lead investigator for the explosion, Ravindra Chhatre, said the ruptured pipe was "probably two-thirds of the way to Washington D.C.," where it will be tested to determine how and where it was fractured. He provided no further details on the investigation.
San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said the city has relocated 271 people and was meeting one-on-one with victims who cannot return to their homes.
Some nearby residents came to hear the governor speak, including Joe Malaspina, 19, whose home was "green flagged," or declared habitable.
"I'm not really angry," he said. "PG&E — they're doing their best and I feel maybe this coulda been avoided, but it is an accident. It's not like they blew it up purposefully."