Families who lost loved ones in the nation's deadliest pipeline accident in a decade are forming a new nonprofit group, harnessing their grief to press for strict controls over the high-pressure gas lines coursing below homes across the country.
The Gas Pipe Safety Foundation plans to raise awareness through major publicity campaigns, advocate with state and federal lawmakers and build alliances with victims of other blasts, the group's leaders told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Jessica Morales, 20, was one of eight killed on Sept. 9, 2010, when a transmission line exploded in the quiet suburb of San Bruno, sparking a tower of flames that consumed block after block of 1960's-era homes overlooking San Francisco Bay.
Her mother, Rene Morales, will serve as the new foundation's executive director. She said her daughter knew how to speak her mind and nearly 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 in a nearby neighborhood of San Bruno, where her daughter's room remains unchanged.
"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."
The ruptured line ignited a blaze that spread across 15 acres, destroyed 38 homes and left a 26-foot wide crater that still gapes at the bottom of the street where the pipe ran.
On Friday evening, San Bruno residents will hold a ceremony to remember the deceased a few minutes before the one-year milestone passes. Two days later, on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, survivors and community members will come together for a reunion in a nearby park.
Jessica Morales, who had hoped to become a fashion journalist, had gone to her boyfriend's house that evening to watch the first game of the NFL season when the initial explosion ripped through the subdivision.
The couple tried to flee the house, but a second blast engulfed them.
Joseph Ruigomez staggered in the street until neighbors rushed him to a nearby hospital to be treated for third-degree burns. Jessica Morales' body later was found in a neighbor's shed.
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 in response that the company has spent the past year making fundamental changes to its operations and fully embraces the NTSB's recommendations.
On Wednesday, two days before the one-year anniversary of her daughter's death, Rene Morales filed papers formally establishing the organization with the California Secretary of State.
The new San Bruno-based nonprofit plans to solicit funding from a variety of sources and hopes to network with advocates who also are urging change after a deadly pipeline accident this year in Pennsylvania and other ruptures that fouled waterways in Montana and Michigan.
"Like everything that gets started on a napkin at Starbucks, we'll start small but we'll get bigger," said Rene Morales, who resigned from her job in finance at a local hospital to take on the charge a few months ago. "We want to make sure the NTSB's recommendations become a reality."
James Ruigomez, whose son is still recovering from lasting injuries, said his family will 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.
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.
"We welcome the opportunity to sit down with them when they're ready to talk about how we can support the common goal of enhancing pipeline safety," PG&E spokesman Brian Swanson said Thursday.
Now, as Washington lawmakers are debating measures that would tighten control of the industry, U.S. Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier said community efforts could exercise real influence.
"In Congress, it's really easy to be persuaded by an industry that says we can't handle more regulations," said Speier, who reintroduced a pipeline safety bill Thursday and whose district includes San Bruno. "That needs to be countered with the face of a mother who lost a daughter because there was a gas explosion and it appears there was negligence on the part of the utility."
Republican and Democratic legislators remain divided on how to upgrade and oversee the nation's aging energy pipelines.
One pipeline bill offered by House Republicans on Wednesday would block some safety reforms and ignore some of the NTSB's safety proposals, while another House GOP bill would set new modern standards to detect leaks and shut down pipes during emergencies, and replace aging cast-iron pipes, all problems exposed in recent ruptures and explosions.