First, they heard the hissing. Then, they smelled the stench; gas escaping from a pipeline inside the hole carved out of the street on South 47th Street and Wall Avenue on Saturday morning.
A laborer with Ghilotti Bros.—a San Rafael-based contracting company—called his supervisor, who was a few blocks away. They had backed into a two-inch PG&E pipeline while digging down to the sewer line.
“As soon as I got out of the truck, I could hear it blowin’,” the supervisor said from the scene Monday.
He called 911, and the fire department promptly responded. Then PG&E came out to assess the damage.
Meanwhile, residents on several nearby blocks got a knock at the door and were asked to evacuate. Some got in their cars and drove elsewhere, while others, like Richmond resident Lashay Wilson, set off on foot.
PG&E repaired the pipeline, and most residents returned home within two hours. But the experience has left some residents on their toes, since the media has kept a close eye on pipeline ruptures after a 30-inch pipeline burst in San Bruno last year, causing an explosion that killed eight.
“I’m worried,” Wilson said as she sat in a friend’s garage directly in front of the portion of the street Ghilotti Bros. was still working on Monday afternoon. “They had us all up out of our homes.”
The contracting supervisor said PG&E responded quickly, but he remains concerned about the fact that the pipeline was not marked properly on the street’s surface with yellow spray paint. He said his workers take time to locate those markings, “even if it takes all day,” but no such marking was found.
In fact, he found another old, two-inch steel line Monday while digging 10 feet north of the pipeline that had burst Saturday.
That one wasn’t marked either, the contractor said, but luckily it was spotted before any potential damage was done.
“The good thing is, nobody got hurt,” he said, referring to Saturday’s incident. “It’s a good thing it was a two-inch and not a four- or six-inch.”
However, a PG&E investigation following the pipeline break found that the pipes were marked, said PG&E spokesperson Tamar Sarkissian. She said the investigation included a look at photos taken before construction started, as well as meetings with Ghilotti Bros. and the California Public Utilities Commission.
“After a thorough investigation, it was found that we marked the lines properly,” Sarkissian said.
She also noted that no PG&E customers’ service was interrupted during the incident.
Richmond Fire Chief Michael Banks said the department responds first to emergencies including gas leaks. Most concerns lie in the possibility that gas could become confined to a small space, including a home, and ignite.
“The big concern is that the vapors will find an ignition source, and once it finds that, it will trail back to where the gas is leaking and cause a pretty extensive fire,” Banks said by phone Monday.
He said the department responds to gas leaks a couple times each month, most of which involve a vehicle that has crashed into a home gas meter or leaks caused by construction.
Saturday’s leak was minimal, but residents living in directions that could contain gas vapor in the air were asked to evacuate to be safe, Banks said.
“Obviously in the past year, it’s been on the minds of a lot more people in terms of the dangers of natural gas and what can happen,” Banks said. “The San Bruno incident certainly brought things into focus as far as the worst-case-scenario. But this wasn’t anything, nearly, close to that.”