An off-duty company mechanic helped battle a deadly, gas-fueled inferno outside San Francisco by responding on his own before Pacific Gas & Electric Co. officials recognized one of their pipelines had exploded, federal documents show.
Veteran corrosion mechanic Michael Hickey assembled an ad-hoc team of colleagues, then shut down two valves on the ruptured line, halting the flow of gas stoking the fire, according to National Transportation Safety Board documents released Thursday.
Hickey had just finished dinner when he heard on the news that a plane crash had erupted in flames in San Bruno, but quickly recognized that a gas pipeline had burst, the mechanic told investigators.
"In my heart, I knew that was something. Not a plane crash," he is quoted in the documents as saying. "I proceeded to my car, to head to work, to get my truck."
Hickey and a colleague hopped in the company pickup and drove through rush-hour traffic to reach the scene, where he screwed down the first valve with a wrench, as a supervisor called in their progress to headquarters. Then Hickey determined they should speed to a second site to shut off the second valve downstream.
After the 44-year-old transmission line blew in California on the evening of Sept. 9, eight people died, dozens were injured, and 38 homes overlooking the San Francisco Bay were destroyed by fire.
The NTSB has yet to determine a cause, but said in its initial investigation findings that the fire that raged for an hour and 40 minutes after the initial blast would have burned out much sooner had automatic shut-off valves been in place.
If PG&E were able to close its valves on the line immediately after the initial explosion, the gas-fed fire likely would have gone out in under 10 minutes, said Theo Theofanous, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Santa Barbara who directs its Center for Risk Studies and Safety.
Evidence released to date leaves it unclear if any of the deaths could have been avoided had automatic or remotely operated valves been in place. But experts said it was possible _ and that others who were injured and homes that were leveled might have been spared.
"Obviously, they were scrambling and they were not prepared," Theofanous said.
PG&E spokesman Joe Molica said the company was fully cooperating with the investigation in allowing its current and former employees to be interviewed, but did not comment specifically on Hickey's actions.
"PG&E's overriding objective from the outset of the NTSB investigation has been to help the NTSB identify the root cause of the accident," Molica said.
Debbie Mazzanti, a representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, said Hickey and several other longstanding PG&E workers who helped to shut down the valves that evening acted like "heroes".
"These people fell into action and did what needed to be done," Mazzanti said. "They didn't wait for a call from a supervisor. They knew there were valves there and did everything they could to shut them down."
In the wake of San Bruno, the California Public Utilities Commission has begun crafting new pipeline safety regulations, and federal transportation officials have pressed for pipeline companies to speed up efforts to repair and replace aging oil and gas lines.
Thursday, the state commission approved a plan that requires PG&E to update officials on crucial safety work done on its natural gas pipelines over the next three years.
PG&E will be required to file semi-annual reports showing which pipelines the company is replacing and which lines are most high risk, and also will have to spell out its justifications for its annual budgets and strategic plans.
The company has launched some initiatives to strengthen the management of its natural gas system, but could face fines if it cannot produce documents proving that its high-pressure transmission lines have been operating safely.