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Flames from San Francisco gas explosion damage five buildings

Published: Updated:

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.

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.

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.

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.