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San Bruno fire: How safe are gas lines?

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A massive explosion rocked a San Bruno, Calif. neighborhood Thursday night. (Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

It starts with a rotten egg smell. A huge boom follows. It can end in death.

A natural gas leak, while rare, can destroy homes, property, cause grievous injury and, at worst, death. Thursday night, the worst happened.

A fireball shot 1,000 feet into the air over the homes of a San Bruno, Calif., neighborhood, just south of San Francisco.

Utility officials said a gas line ruptured in the vicinity of the blast, which left a giant crater and sent flames tearing across several suburban blocks in San Bruno just after 6 p.m.

One person was confirmed dead, 20 others were injured and 58 homes have been destroyed.

While it may seem like a freak accident, this explosion is only one of a number of natural gas disasters this year.

The United States relies on natural gas for one-fourth of its energy needs. There are more than 2.2 million miles of pipelines criss-crossing the country, and many run beneath homes and buildings.

On June 7, two unrelated natural gas explosions, one in North Texas and one in West Virginia, occurred. One worker died in Texas. Seven workers were burned in West Virginia.

A natural gas energy power plant exploded in Connecticut in February, killing five and injuring 12.

In February a natural gas line burst near Lafayette Elementary, a Northwest D.C. school, as a result of valve malfunction. No one was injured, but Pete Piringer, a D.C. fire and EMS spokesman, said such incidents sometimes occur in extremely low temperatures.

After a 2008 explosion in McCook, Texas KRGV, an ABC affliate in Rio Grande, conducted a six week investigation into natural gas lines and found pipelines as old as five decades.

"They're just sitting out there waiting and rusting, waiting to explode," Jay Marcom says. The Texas farmer became an advocate for stricter gas line regulation after he began to suspect his land had leaking gas lines beneath it.

By Melissa Bell  | September 10, 2010; 10:15 AM ET
Categories:  The Daily Catch  
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