San Bruno residents to remember 8 killed in blast

Survivors of the nation's deadliest pipeline accident in a decade gathered Friday evening to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the explosion and to honor the eight lives lost in the blast.

About 300 people, including neighborhood residents, uniformed fire and police officials and city leaders, attended the somber remembrance ceremony, which started a few minutes before the milestone at a community college near the ravaged subdivision overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

After a solo bagpiper walked through the crowd performing "Amazing Grace," a moment of silence was observed.

Family members rang a bell to remember loved ones killed in the blast, followed by San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane speaking of those lost in the explosion.

"The warmth and solace of memories we have will continue to be our strength," he told the gathering.

The Sept. 9, 2010, blast killed eight people, injured dozens and sparked a fireball that laid waste to 38 homes in the bedroom community, which still bears scars from the tragedy.

Even as she mourns her daughter, one local mother is harnessing her grief to form a new nonprofit to press for strict controls over high-pressure gas lines coursing below homes across the country.

Jessica Morales, 20, was killed when the transmission line exploded next to her boyfriend's home, sparking a tower of flames that spread across 15 acres and left a deep crater still gaping at the bottom of the street.

Rene Morales guards her daughter's memory closely, leaving her bedroom curtains drawn as they were the afternoon she left, holding tight to her ebullient spirit. She said her daughter knew how to speak her mind and a year after her death, Jessica's words still propel her.

"I still long for Jessica, and only wish I had the opportunity to nurse her back to health," said Morales, 42, tearing as she spoke in an interview at her home. "We just want to make a difference. We don't want Jessica's death to be in vain. We don't want any other family to feel this loss for something that could be avoided."

On Wednesday, two days before the one-year anniversary of her daughter's death, Rene Morales filed papers formally establishing the Gas Pipe Safety Foundation with the California Secretary of State.

The new nonprofit plans to raise awareness through major publicity campaigns, advocate with state and federal lawmakers and build alliances with victims of other blasts, said Rene Morales, the new foundation's executive director.

Morales said several additional victims' families also will participate, while other residents are taking action in different ways, including sponsoring scholarships in memory of loved ones.

On Sunday, on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the community also will gather for a reunion in a nearby park, which City Mayor Jim Ruane hopes will serve as therapy.

Jessica Morales, an aspiring fashion journalist, was visiting her boyfriend Joseph Ruigomez's house that evening to watch the first game of the NFL season when the initial explosion hit.

The couple tried to flee the house, but a second blast engulfed them. Jessica Morales' body later was found in a neighbor's shed.

Ruigomez miraculously escaped, but spent five months in hospital being treated for third-degree burns. His father James Ruigomez said his son was still recovering from lasting physical and emotional injuries, and vowed his family would do whatever they can prevent other pipeline disasters.

"We want to make sure no other family in the world has to suffer this kind of loss," Ruigomez said.

Many blast victims are hoping a report by federal investigators placing blame on the utility company and state regulators will speed their path to justice.

Last week, federal investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board found that a litany of failures by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. led to the explosion and warned there was no certainty that those problems didn't exist elsewhere. The board also made a series of safety recommendations to regulators and the gas industry, concluding the accident wasn't the result of a simple mechanical failure, but was an "organizational accident."

PG&E President Chris Johns said the company has made fundamental changes to its operations and fully embraces the NTSB's recommendations.

"All of us remain deeply sorry about the terrible accident, but that is not enough," he said in a statement provided Thursday. "We are committed for the long term to helping the community rebuild, to learning from this experience, and to making the necessary changes in our culture and operating practices to operate our pipeline system as safely as possible."

Signs of progress are evident on dozens of charred lots in the neighborhood, where construction crews are building new homes and retrofitting damaged properties.

Federal and state regulators have promised ambitious safety upgrades in the wake of the San Bruno accident and several other high-profile pipeline ruptures. Congress is preparing to debate several national pipeline safety bills this fall, and federal prosecutors also are probing the blast.

Still, residents are asking why a year later, the company has not been fined for poor record-keeping leading up to the explosion.

Friday, a small group including San Francisco's Green Party candidate for mayor protested outside the company's downtown San Francisco headquarters, calling for criminal charges to be filed against its CEO.

Consumer advocates also have questioned PG&E's ambitious new plan to boost safety on its gas lines, which would require customers to pick up the tab for 90 percent of the $2.2 billion safety upgrade. The company forecasts the plan would cost the average home less than $2 more per month and would prioritize more patrols and leak surveys, pressure reductions and safety tests for its transmission lines.