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Explosion coverage: early errors then a prank

Thursday night’s coverage of the San Bruno pipeline included a few early mistakes about the cause and even an on-air prank.

The mistakes came at the beginning, before news helicopters were on the scene, and the only video came from automated cameras on highways and rooftops. KPIX said at 6:32 that a caller had reported that a gas station had blown up.

By 6:35, copters were showing homes on fire, and the speculation shifted to a plane crash.

“We heard a couple of eyewitnesses tell us they heard a plane, a definite rumble coming through the neighborhood and then something hit, and it was an explosion. This would be consistent with aviation fuel burning off,” KPIX’s Ken Bastida said at 6:40. But he added, “We have literally half a block of houses burning and no sense of an aircraft remnant in the area.”

You can’t blame him for jumping to that conclusion since San Mateo County fire dispatchers had announced that a plane had crashed in San Bruno.

But it didn’t take long (6:53 is the earliest report we saw) for SFO’s duty manager to say that no planes were missing.

By 6:55, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor flatly said he did not think the fire was due to a plane crash.

A few minutes after 7 p.m., a retired fire captain from Contra Costa County told KTVU that judging from the smoke, the fire looks like it is being fed by natural gas.

At 7:30, KTVU quoted a PG&E source as saying the cause of the fire and explosion was due to one of the company’s gas lines.

In the course of a half hour, the Chyron describing the story on KPIX went from “Gas station explosion” to “Reports: Plane Crash” then just “Plane Crash” and finally “Pipeline explosion.”

Later, KRON became the victim of a prank when it accepted a call from somebody posing as a PG&E spokesman. In an telephone interview with Pam Moore, he said all of the things you might expect a company spokesman would say. Then she pressed him for the cause and asked, “You mean the line wasn’t checked out?”

He responded, “The line was broken down by Howard Stern’s penis.” Instead of cutting him off, there was a pause, then he elaborated on his comment. At that point, he was cut off and another anchor is heard saying, “It’s a joke. Let’s move on. Sorry. That was rude.”

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