SAN BERNARDINO — Three people died and 31 were injured Thursday morning when a fireball from a ruptured gasoline line engulfed homes and outraced fleeing children in the same low-income neighborhood that was ravaged by a runaway freight train just two weeks ago.
Ten homes were leveled by the fast-moving blaze, and more than 200 people were evacuated as fire crews battled flames that shot 300 feet into the air and were visible for miles.
The names of the dead were withheld pending notification of relatives. Two bodies were found in a burned home. A third was found pinned against a back yard chain-link fence.
The fire's devastation was almost unbearable for many residents of the Muscoy section of western San Bernardino still haunted by vivid memories of their earlier ordeal. On May 12, a runaway freight train plunged off tracks that skirt the neighborhood, killing four people and flattening a row of homes right across the street from those that took the brunt of Thursday's blast.
Nursing burns and comforting frightened children as they surveyed the burning skeletons of their houses, residents vowed to leave their seemingly star-crossed neighborhood and expressed anger that authorities had not foreseen the disaster.
"We're all nervous wrecks," Allene Muhammad said as she cuddled her terrified 2-year-old daughter, Fatin. "After the train wreck, they told us it was safe. They were wrong. How can we live here any more? How can our children deal with this?"
It was unclear Thursday what caused the reinforced steel pipeline to rupture and send a geyser of unleaded gasoline spewing into the air on Duffy Street just north of Highland Avenue.
But suspicion immediately focused on the derailed Southern Pacific freight train. The runaway train plowed nose-first into the buried fuel line and may have damaged or weakened it, making it vulnerable to the high pressure used to pump gasoline 250 miles from Colton to Las Vegas.
Indeed, concern that the train's steel cars may have punctured the line prompted authorities to evacuate a two-block area for two days after the derailment. Residents were allowed back into their homes only after city officials were assured by inspectors for the Calnev Pipeline Co. that the line was not damaged.
"This was our nightmare," said Paul Allaire, spokesman for the San Bernardino Fire Department. "It happened just like we feared it would."
The gasoline leak and fireball erupted about 8 a.m. in what used to be the back yard of a house on the west side of Duffy Street--one of 11 homes destroyed when the runaway train jumped the tracks on a curve. Seven of those homes had been leveled and the area fenced before the fire, which destroyed houses on the east side of Duffy that were unscathed by the derailment.
Witnesses said the firestorm, described by one resident as a "giant blowtorch," whipped through the neighborhood moments after a freight train roared past on the repaired tracks.
"The train went by, and then I heard this loud bang. I just started running," said Leah Thomas, 10, who was waiting with her brother, Jordan, 6, for the school bus when the blaze erupted. "My backpack fell off, and I got burned on my arm by the heat. I was screaming."
Waiting with a group of stunned neighbors for treatment by paramedics, Leah Thomas reflected on the last 14 days: "I just want to leave this place," she said. "I don't want to live here any more."
Martha Franklin, whose Donald Street home and new car were damaged by flames, was visiting with her insurance agent when she heard a loud boom.
"I peeked out the window, and I saw this ball of flame coming over the top of the house," said Franklin, 60, who, coincidentally, works at a burn unit of San Bernardino County Medical Center. "I ran outside, and my hedges were on fire. The heat was so intense. It started singeing my hair."
Even an hour after the fire first swept through the neighborhood, dazed, burned residents--some still clad in pajamas--were running through the streets, weeping as they searched for lost pets and missing relatives.
Behind them lay an eerie, blackened landscape, strewn with half-melted mailboxes and glass from blown-out windows. Here and there, charred refrigerators, barbecues or baby strollers were visible in the piles of ash.
"I still haven't found my daughter," said Harvey Wilson, a Duffy Street resident. "She was so terrified after the train came off of there. She and my wife have been sleeping in the living room, as far from the tracks as they could. And now this."
Fearful himself of another disaster, Wilson said he tried to sell his home to Southern Pacific Railroad and leave after the derailment, but was offered only $57,000. "Where can I go and buy a four-bedroom house for that? I'm trapped."