By Thomas K. Pendergast
In the aftermath of the ruptured gas pipeline fire that torched several buildings at Geary Boulevard and Parker Avenue earlier this year, a local union is calling for more robust permitting requirements, while former tenants of the building put their lives back together.
A preliminary report by the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) said the Feb. 6 incident started about 1:15 p.m. when a third-party contractor for a Verizon Wireless project, Kilford Engineering, hit a 2-inch Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) natural gas main where it connected to a 4-inch main, rupturing the pipe and igniting the gas.
The NTSB report said there were no injuries but service was cut to 328 customers and about 100 people were evacuated from the area.
Firefighters initially focused on containing the fire until PG&E could isolate and shut down that section of the pipeline.
“The isolation of the affected segment required turning off six street-level valves and mechanically squeezing off the 4-inch polyethylene main,” the NTSB preliminary report said. “During the two hours that elapsed while PG&E personnel isolated the flow of natural gas to the affected segment, the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) cordoned off the area, applied water to the flames and provided a water curtain.”
The report says Kilford Engineering had five employees at the site and a mini motorized excavator with a bucket. It was also noted that the screw cap on the 2-inch pipeline branch was torn from the assembly in a manner consistent with an outside force impact and that a PG&E crew showed up about 20 minutes after the fire started to excavate the 4-inch main.
“About 3:05 p.m., PG&E … employees closed the first valve,” the report said. “The final valve was closed about 3:35 p.m. and the gas-fueled fire was extinguished shortly after 3:38 p.m. After the gas-fueled fire was extinguished, SFFD began work to contain and control the building fires started by the initial fire.”
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee is now waiting for the final NTSB report, but at a committee meeting on May 23, an attorney for the construction union Local 261 brought up the numerous layers of sub-contractors that eventually led to Kilford Engineering performing the excavation.
Jolene Kramer of the law firm Weinberg, Roger and Rosenfeld, asked the supervisors to amend sections of the City’s Public Works Code requirements to make sure every subcontractor in the project chain is permitted and properly licensed, with the goal of imposing clear liability on public utilities, all contractors and subcontractors at every tier; plus requiring a skilled and trained work force to perform excavation work in the streets. Specifically, she referred to Article 2.4 of the code “where we see an opportunity to improve these contracting standards.”
“We’re proposing that the City require every contractor, in the contracting chain to be licensed. However, that’s something where we have to work with the supervisors’ offices on that,” Kramer said.
She said the union specifically focused on Article 2.4, which deals with excavation permitting, because “that’s what the City can regulate. The City can dictate when you can dig and who can dig and under what circumstances. So, what we’re proposing is that the City require a permit applicant to meet certain minimum qualifications … that every contractor at every tier be licensed and be trained in Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules.
“The main issue that we’re trying to address is the fact that the (present) contracting structure leads to less accountability. And workers that are doing the work need to be adequately trained,” she said.
The fire from the gas line eventually torched the building on the northwest corner, which included the Dim Sum restaurant Hong Kong Lounge II and at least two residential units on the second floor above it. The fire also damaged the building next door to the point where it is uninhabitable.
Mollie Brown is the director of programs for the Huckleberry Youth Project, which had an office on the ground floor of that adjacent building. She said normally that location had about 15 staff members but that day there were an extra 20 people inside for a training session.
“All of a sudden there was this noise and you could see the flame. I was actually across the street at Mel’s (Diner) having a meeting and saw the flames shoot up into the air,” Brown said. “And everybody ran out of the Mel’s thinking it was a fire that was going to spread, and I was, in the meantime, frantically calling the office to say ‘get out of the building’ and then was able to see my coworkers evacuating to go down the road.
“Then we all just kind of sat on the corner and watched this flame just keep going for hours. I mean it was unbelievable how long it took PG&E to find their spigots, to turn off the gas, the valves, which was terribly frustrating because had that been addressed sooner none of us would have lost our building,” she said. “That was incredibly frustrating because I felt like it was totally preventable, the damage to the building.”
When they were finally let into the building to salvage anything they could, they found severe damage.
“By the time we got in there the water damage and smoke damage were so bad we lost equipment and things,” Brown said.
She said they lost about 20 computers and all of their furniture.
“Everything was just pretty trashed,” she said. “If it wasn’t destroyed by the water, it was destroyed with the smoke damage.”
They hired a consultant later to work with their information technology personnel at retrieving what they could from the hard drives. They had “gone into ‘the cloud’” a couple of years ago, so most of their operational information like finances, human resources and the like were saved that way. They have now relocated to two temporary facilities, one of which they have signed a lease for a year.
“It was kind of very emotional for us to lose our home base. I’m still working from my kitchen table. It’s been chaotic,” Brown said.
Debbi Lerman ran the San Francisco Human Services Network from that same office. She was not there when the fire started but she recalled the aftermath and retrieval of what could be salvaged for her work.
“We were actually able to go in a couple of days later,” Lerman said. “It was horrible being in there. People were wearing masks in the building. It was a toxic environment.”
She was able to salvage her computer system and was relieved that the backup hard drives still worked. It cost her about $1,000 to clean and restore her computer, which she was without for a week. She had to work from home for more than two months. She managed to save between 15 and 20 boxes of files, although she is still reorganizing them.
Eventually Lerman did find a new office in the Tenderloin District.
“I’ve spent many, many hours dealing with this instead of doing the work that our organization should be doing,” she said. “Even now I’m sitting in an office that all my stuff is still mostly in boxes. So I still don’t have most of my files. It’s chaos.”
Rose Hillson described a different kind of chaos. As a resident just north of the fire, she described an uncoordinated and confusing evacuation. That afternoon she noticed a commotion outside her window and stuck her head out just in time for a police officer to order her out of her house.
Because the streets were blocked off and quickly became congested with traffic being diverted from Geary Boulevard, she could not get across the boulevard to get to an evacuation center she heard about. So, she ended up standing a block away, getting colder as the afternoon went on, until she was finally allowed back in to her house at 5:40 p.m.
“So I was just stuck there,” Hillson said. “But I never really found out where the evacuation center was. I never saw it.”