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Gas Line Explosion Rocks San Bruno, California; Pastor Cancels Then Reconsiders Koran Burning

Aired September 10, 2010 - 06:59   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was like an earthquake. And a lot of rattling, and the noise was phenomenal. It was so loud. and It just kept shaking probably a good ten minutes.


KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: That's a description this morning after this unbelievably devastating explosion just outside of San Francisco. A state of emergency in San Bruno this morning. A powerful gas line explosion triggering a deadly, destructive inferno. Dozens of homes destroyed. The heat hot enough to crack car windshields from blocks away and to melt taillights as people were seen running for their lives out of the neighborhood.

We're getting the latest information on it this morning on this Friday, September 10th. Glad you're with us on this AMERICAN MORNING. I'm Kiran Chetry.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning to you. I'm John Roberts. Thanks so much for joining us. Lots to tell you about today, including a brand new twist overnight in the Koran burning that was planned for tomorrow on 9/11 in Gainesville, Florida. Will it happen?

CHETRY: This morning we're hearing from the Florida pastor who called it off yesterday and then seemed to indicate there was a possibility he'd go ahead with it.

We have a live report from John Zarrella in Gainesville in just a few minutes, and we're going to be talking to the Florida imam as well that may have helped broker this decision to not go ahead with the planned Koran burning. We're going to interview him in about 20 minutes.

First, though, more breaking news south of San Francisco.

ROBERTS: As you saw by the pictures a couple of moments ago, the city of San Bruno still on fire this morning. A ruptured gas line, a big one, 24 inches triggering a powerful explosion and deadly fire last night at the height of the evening rush shower. One person is dead dozens injured, some with critical burns. Those numbers, according to the mayor, are expected -- and the acting governor, are expected to rise today.

CHETRY: We had a chance to speak with California's lieutenant governor a short time ago. He described it as looking like a bomb went off. He said he'd never seen anything like it. He described asphalt all over the road, cars burned on both sides, and structures literally with nothing next to them but a chimney. More than 170 homes damaged or destroyed so far.

ROBERTS: The neighborhood sits about two miles west of San Francisco's International Airport, which is why when the explosion first occurred, a lot of people thought that a plane had crashed. Dan Simon is tracking the latest developments for us and is in San Bruno live for us this morning. Dan, what's the latest from there on the ground?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John and Kiran, for a while this appeared to be just a losing battle for firefighters. When you consider the fact that you basically had an unlimited supply of natural gas. That is until it got shut off.

In any event, we had a chance to see what things looked like up close. Take a look.


SIMON: There were early reports that a plane may have crashed into the hillside. Those reports were not true. But you can understand when you get here why some may have been under that impression.

When fire crews got here, this neighborhood where we are was just totally engulfed in flames. You can see right now firefighters, all they can really do is take a defensive stance, try to put out some of the flames and try to prevent some of the other homes from catching on fire.

Here's another vantage point of homes that caught fire. You can see behind us just four or five homes totally leveled, fire crews not doing anything over there. A few minutes ago we heard a very loud explosion. We didn't know what it was. It turned out to be this white station wagon, some kind of car explosion. So that's another things that crews out here have to deal with.

We are right next to what we think was ground zero. You can see behind me everything is completely leveled. To give you an idea how hot this fire was, want to show you this. Look at the back of this white Volkswagen, the heat just melting this taillight.

And if you walk to the front, you can see that the explosion caused the concrete to travel a great distance. It's just lying here on the windshield of this car, a little chunk of it.

One the big problems firefighters are dealing with right now is the wind. You can see it on this crime scene tape just kind of blowing around and you can see it with this smoke. That's helping to spread the flames.


SIMON: And you can only imagine what it was like for these neighbors when this happened, to hear that explosion. We were there as firefighters were putting it out. But you can just imagine what it was like right when it occurred, one neighbor telling us it sounded like an earthquake or felt like an earthquake. Take a look.


SIMON: Did you hear the explosion?

JUDY SERRESSQUE, EVACUEE: Oh, yes. Yes. It was huge. It felt like an earthquake, a big one. And I got scared. I mean, I felt them before but this one was -- the whole house shook. And I got up to go into a doorway, and my living room filled with an orange glow. And when I went to my front door, glass front, I looked out, and everything was just flames.


SIMON: So we know that this was a natural gas line that somehow ruptured. How it occurred we don't know. We don't know if there was some construction in the area or just so much pressure there. That's one of the things that we hope to get answers to as soon as we get some daylight here in San Bruno.

One interesting thing to note here is there's a neighbor who said he actually detected the odor of gas for a good three weeks and at one point PG&E, the utility, came out and investigated, actually told him to go inside his house, shut all of his doors.

They were sort of canvassing the neighborhood, came across certain people and said, look, we understand that there's gas. You might want to go inside because it's a bit of a dangerous situation. So PG&E told us that it's too early for them to comment about that, but they say that if they're indeed responsible, they'll take full accountability for it.

ROBERTS: All right, Dan. And in fact, in about 30 seconds we're going to hear from PG&E spokesperson. So stand by for that.

CHETRY: Dan Simon, thanks so much. We'll check in with you throughout the morning as well.

Meanwhile, we want to hear from that neighbor Tim Gutierrez. You can sense the frustration in his voice as he describes the calls that they made to the company. Let's listen.


TIM GUTIERREZ, SAN BRUNO RESIDENT: It started around three weeks ago in my neighborhood. PG&E had came out. I was working in my garage. They had told me to shut the door, go inside, that there was heavy strong gases. After being in the neighborhood a little bit they packed up and left, but the real heavy smell was down the street at the next stop sign. Every day after work I would smell the heavy smell coming from the gutter and sewer right there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And from what you know, what did PG&E do about this? How long was the smell going on? What did they tell you to do?

GUTIERREZ: They told us nothing. I don't know how anybody cannot repair a smell like that and not find that smell especially go into neighborhoods and there's other neighbors that have smelled the same smell, really strong.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And for how long have you smelled this?

GUTIERREZ: For a good three weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And what did they tell you to do?

GUTIERREZ: When they had came out they said shut the door and go inside the house. And that was it. And you can see as what had happened. This is ridiculous.


ROBERTS: Tim Gutierrez, as Kiran was saying, expressing some frustration there.

CHETRY: The people that lived there said they smelled this gas for week leading up to last night's tragedy. So we're going to find out what can be done about it. Blair Jones is a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric. He joins us this morning on the phone. Blair, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

ROBERTS: We want to talk about the idea of a gas leak, Blair. But, first of all, what the heck happened last night?

BLAIR JONES, SPOKESMAN, PACIFIC GAS AND ELECTRIC (via telephone): First, thank you for having us on this morning.

Let me start with our thoughts go out to everyone affected by this terrible situation. We have crews on the scene working with emergency officials. And right now our priority is working to help make sure the area is safe.

To your question, John, a cause is yet to be determined. We do know that a PG&E gas transmission line was ruptured. But what led to that, that will be the source of an investigation.

CHETRY: Can you give us a sense of where the gas line was located within this neighborhood or just adjacent to it?

JONES: Well, I think the best way to say it -- it's obviously there in the vicinity of the neighborhood as part of a gas infrastructure that's serving or providing gas to residents in the region there. And, again, I just want to reiterate to our customers that are going through this situation that our thoughts to all of them that are affected by this terrible situation.

ROBERTS: Sure, Blair. And we understand from talking to the mayor and the lieutenant governor who is the acting governor while Governor Schwarzenegger is out of the state, that this is a 24-inch gas pipeline. In terms of the infrastructure that you have there, is that a main pipeline? Is it a feeder line? How would you describe it?

JONES: Well, I mean, a gas transmission line is a main line, if you will, for the delivery of gas service in the area. Transmission lines would help feed -- actually distribution lines as well which would be connected in neighborhoods and helping heat people's homes.

So we had the transmission lines and distribution lines in the area. We have shut down gas service in the immediate area where the incident occurred for safety. And, again, we are working with emergency officials out there on the scene to make sure the area is safe for them to access it and help them do their jobs.

CHETRY: Yes, the reason we're asking about the vicinity, obviously, if the worst-case scenario happened, which as we see here it likely did, how can you ensure that this doesn't happen again? Gas lines are underneath and near thousands of neighborhoods across the country.

JONES: Well, again, let me say our thoughts are with those affected by the situation. And we will be participating in a full investigation looking into trying to determine what led to this incident.

And as I said, we do know that a gas transmission line ruptured. As to the cause, that's yet to be determined. But we'll be looking and participating in a full investigation trying to find out what happened.

ROBERTS: Right. This particular transmission line, we have seen that it blue pieces of concrete several blocks away. Was it actually crossing underneath or was it buried underneath a residential road at the point of explosion?

JONES: John, I don't have the exact details exactly to lay out exactly where it was sitting. I can tell you that it was obviously located near this -- the area because, again, it's the way the infrastructure is set up, you had a transmission system and distribution system to deliver service to our customers.

But, again, you know, as to the cause, as to what led to this, that's something we take very seriously and that will be part of a full investigation.

ROBERTS: No doubt I'm sure you do. What about the complaints that there was a smell of gas in the area for some three weeks prior to this explosion? JONES: Yes, that's something as well. Again, we are committed to a full investigation. That's something that we would look at during the course of that investigation.

Right now, our focus is on helping make sure that the area is safe, safe for our emergency responders and our crews and our customers, and then going about restoring gas and electrical service as quickly and safely as possible.

CHETRY: It would be seem, though, you would have a record of calls made from that area if people were calling PG&E to say, I smell gas. I need to know if that was taken care of. Throughout the course of this today, has there been any investigation by your company as to whether or not these service calls were made in response to a smell of gas?

JONES: Well, again, we will be participating, conducting a full investigation. We'll look at things like that. But right now our focus is on helping make sure the area is safe and that we're getting service back up of gas and electric quickly and safely as possible.

CHETRY: And one other just question about where these lines are, because there was some talk when we went out there. Our reporter on the scene as well as others were talking about the possibility that perhaps construction, a backhoe or something may have ruptured the line accidentally.

What safety measures are in place by your company to make sure that there is a buffer that even if there was an accidental digging or construction job, that something wouldn't hit a line? How do you prevent that?

JONES: Well, no. Thank you for that. Like I said, while the cause is yet to be determined here, I can tell you in general -- it's a general practice that when anybody -- any time people do some type of work, we have a system in place called "Call before you dig, 811" to let us know if there is anything in the area so we can come out and mark the line so if customers know they're doing some kind of work where the gas lines might be situated.

That said, I'm not -- you know, it would be -- I can't speculate at this time of what led to this incident. That's yet to be determined. There will be a full investigation. But we always work with our customers and encourage them to call us if they do any type of work so we can help them locate where gas lines are in the vicinity to their homes or businesses.

ROBERTS: Right. Just before we let you go here, Blair, do you know if anybody had made a call before you dig notification in that particular area?

JONES: Again, that will be something part of our investigation. Right now the focus is just working to make sure that area is safe and restoring service as quickly and safely as possible.

ROBERTS: Blair Jones from PG&E. Blair, thanks so much. We'll let you get back to work with morning. We sure you have a lot to do. Hope to hear from you later what you're finding at least in terms of preliminary investigation.

A student was driving in his car heading for class last night when he said he felt the ground shake, heard a loud roar, thought a plane crashed nearby because of the proximity to San Francisco International Airport. He's on the telephone with us now. Sergio, describe that scene as you were driving through the neighborhood.

SERGIO CAMPOS, WITNESS (via telephone): Well, like I said before, it was a very scary scene. I had never seen anything like it. At first when I saw the flames, I thought it was a small house burning or something.

But as I walked down like literally three blocks away from the fire, like, I saw it was a huge, huge explosion. And just three blocks from the fire, I felt the fire or the heat on my face.

CHETRY: Yes. We heard a lot of witnesses talk about feeling that radiant heat. In some cases it actually prevented firefighters from being able to even come close enough to even see if anyone was there. Let's run your video because you did shoot video I believe with your phone when you were there at the location.

Some people also describe this roar, very loud roar coming from underground at the time. Were you hearing that as well or had it stopped by the time you made it to the scene?

CAMPOS: Yes. You can actually hear it on the video, too. It was an ongoing roar, which also made us think it was an airplane. We live down the street from the airport, and that's the very first thing we thought of when we saw this huge explosion.

ROBERTS: We have your video up here, Sergio. Let's pause for a second and listen to the sounds.

You can clearly hear the roar of the gas there. Your sister has a friend who lives in the neighborhood. Do you know what happened to them?

CAMPOS: Well, thankfully they got out OK. Their house was burnt down. It was one of the affected houses. But thankfully they were able to get out.

CHETRY: That's certainly good news that they were. It's very surreal to see this. So you see cars racing away from the scene. Obviously, if you're hearing that roar and don't live there and trying to get away. Then to the left side of the screen we saw a woman running toward the scene. Obviously, there were people that were concerned. At the time, describe what the confusion and chaos was like as people were figuring out what the heck was going on.

CAMPOS: Oh, there was so much confusion. So many of us didn't know whether to run towards the fire and help people near the fire or run away from it and take cover from any more explosions. ROBERTS: All right. Well, Sergio Campos, thank you so much, by the way, for providing us with that iReport video. We really appreciate it for joining us this morning with your description.

By the way, if you live in the area in San Bruno or you're just passing through as Sergio was, you happen to have your smartphone with you or whatever and you've got some video of what happened, send it to us. Upload to us at It's You can also get it on Quick instructions, it's very easy on how to upload your video. Again,

CHETRY: So we hope to find out more information. Right now, one person confirmed lost their life in that. There are fears among local leaders and also the fire and rescue that it could be higher just simply because of the nature of that violent explosion. They weren't able to even get near it at first. And the water lines were cut. So the firefighters had to actually truck in water.

ROBERTS: Yes. You can see it from those aerial shots that that massive crater. So not just the fire but the explosive force of that coming up probably took out a lot of homes in the immediate vicinity. If people were home, they might not have had much of a chance at all to get out, which is why the lieutenant governor thinks that at first light there in San Bruno this morning they may find that the death toll actually does increase.

CHETRY: Meantime, we're continuing to follow the back and forth over this saga of the Koran burning. It seems to get more bizarre by the moment. This Florida pastor pretty much holding the world hostage when it comes to whether or not he's going to burn the Koran on September 11th.

Well, it looks like he says it's off and he's going to explain why coming up. Meantime, he's got the attention of the president, U.S. military and everyone there. We're going to be live in Florida in just a moment.

It's 17-and-a-half minutes past the hour.


CHETRY: It's 20 minutes past the hour right now. Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning.

We have new developments out of Florida today where one pastor of a church with just a few dozen congregants is virtually holding hostage the entire national discussion on Muslim relations. Reverend Terry Jones now backing off of his planned burning of the Islamic holy book tomorrow, September 11th. But now he's saying he's not sure because Jones is claiming that he may have been lied to about the future of the planned Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. John Zarrella has the latest live from Gainesville, Florida, this morning.

Hi, John.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Kiran. That's right. In fact, Jones has been out here this morning making the rounds. And he has in fact said that he's hoping, planning on going to New York perhaps as early as today and he added that if I go to New York, well, obviously there will not be any Koran burning tomorrow. So at this point, according to Jones, there will not be a Koran burning tomorrow. Certainly not if he is in New York.

But yesterday, it was just a bizarre number of news conferences and contradictions. And all we ever really at the end of the day knew that was for the time being, the plans to burn Korans were on hold.


ZARRELLA (voice-over): Suddenly and without warning two men worlds apart in their beliefs walked side by side to the microphones. Pastor Terry Jones and Imam Muhammad Musri, from here in Florida, had a major announcement. An Islamic learning center to be built near Ground Zero would be moved to a different location. Jones for his part would not burn Korans.

REV. TERRY JONES, PASTOR, DOVE WORLD OUTREACH CENTER: The American people do not want the mosque there. And of course, Muslims do not want us to burn the Koran. The imam has agreed to move the mosque. We have agreed to cancel our event on Saturday. And on Saturday I will be flying up there to meet with him.

ZARRELLA: Pastor Jones insisted he had a deal with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in New York, brokered by the man at his side, Imam Muhammad Musri. But wait a minute. Musri said he never made a deal. He never even talked directly with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. He talked only with Rauf's wife who agreed only to set up a meeting in New York Saturday.

IMAM MUHAMMAD MUSRI, ISLAMIC SOCIETY OF CENTRAL FLORIDA: The imam is correct in his statement there is no --

ZARRELLA (on camera): Deal.

MUSRI -- deal and we're not bartering, but we are trying. I'm trying to resolve two delicate situations that have, you know, security ramifications around the world.

ZARRELLA: And -- but by the time you left there and walked out here with Pastor Jones, it went from you saying that we can meet with the imam in New York and then Pastor Jones comes out and says we have a deal and insists there's a deal. He stretched it, changed it?

MUSRI: Stretched it possibly.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): For Imam Rauf in New York, all that was transpiring in Gainesville, Florida, seemed to come out of left field. He issued a statement expressing gratitude that Jones had backed of Koran burnings, but he added, quote, "I have not spoken to Pastor Jones or Imam Musri. I am surprised by their announcement."

So where does this leave Jones? Well, he says he's surprised too and he's changed his tune a bit going from saying no Koran burning to it's now on hold. JONES: We assumed that what the imam told us was of course true. Now -- now we're in somewhat of a state of limbo and we have to rethink, of course, our position.

ZARRELLA: Jones says he wants to talk with Imam Rauf sometime today before he decides what to do. At this point, it's fair to say no one knows where, when or if a New York meeting will take place.


ZARRELLA: Now, Jones has insisted that, you know, there were several witnesses during his meeting yesterday with Imam Musri and that what he heard was that there was a deal. Of course, the question now is will that meeting ever take place in New York. And you know, it's, Kiran, probably not only unlikely, but probably very uncertain as to whether that will ever happen -- Kiran.

CHETRY: Another big question is whether or not a lot of damage has already been done. We've been talking about those protests taking place a little -- you know, divergence of opinion as to whether there are hundreds or thousands of people out but it's happening in Afghanistan today. John Zarrella, we'll check in with throughout the morning. Thanks.

ROBERTS: All right. So, let's try to get some clarity on this. It's 25 minutes after the hour.

Imam Muhammad Musri is the director of the Islamic Society of Central Florida and he joins us now live from Florida.

Imam Musri, thanks very much for being with us. We really appreciate it. So what is the state of things?


ROBERTS: What's happening? Who are we to believe here?

MUSRI: I believe that it was very clear. I gave interviews to the media prior to walking into Mr. Jones' office while he kept me waiting for an hour in the sun. And I stated exactly the message I'm bringing that I want him to understand that delaying the canceling of the burning until Saturday is going to be too late. Demonstrations and riots would take place on Friday because hundreds of millions of people will be attending services. And that was the center of the message. And I also -- while meeting with him -- observed the call when he got it from Secretary Gates. That was what sold him on the canceling. And he was 90 percent ready to cancel.


MUSRI: While I was closing my argument with him, he said, what would you do about the place in New York?

ROBERTS: The mosque. MUSRI: I said I can set up a meeting. Yes, I said I can set up a meeting. I'm an imam. I can talk to the imam, Abdul Rauf, in New York.


MUSRI: Set up a meeting and bring you along to discuss and to take, you know, a shot at moving the mosque. I do not control it. I was very clear to him I have no control over it.

ROBERTS: OK. Now Jones insists, though, that there was some sort of a deal in order for him to give up this idea of burning the Koran that the mosque would be moved. And here's what he said about what you said after that saying, no, no, no, there was no deal to move the mosque, only to have a meeting. Let's listen to what he said.


TERRY JONES, PASTOR, DOVE OUTREACH WORLD CENTER: I understand that he is now going around saying that he did not say that. That is absolutely not true. That is absolutely -- I have several witnesses that were there in the room. We made it very clear. He repeated it back that the imam there in New York said that they would move the mosque.


ROBERTS: So, Imam Musri, who's telling the truth here?

MUSRI: Of course, I am. I have not made that promise. And I made it very clear to him I have no control over the project in New York. I'm just a mediator here. And I promised him to set up the meeting and take him along and pay for it, but no guarantee that I can move that mosque. It's not my decision. So he stretched it and exaggerated once he was in front of the cameras. That became to him the center -- the face-saving gesture that he wanted to connect the two together and barter. But I -- that's not what I offered him.

ROBERTS: Yes. I mean, it wouldn't be unusual for someone to come out of a meeting and stretch what they believe their perception of that was. But in the time that you spent with him, what was your sense of who this fellow Terry Jones is?

MUSRI: I think he is a good person at heart and he is a man who got himself in a very difficult position and couldn't back down despite calls from Christian leaders across the world and in his community as well as from the president, from General Petraeus and others who stressed to him the gravity of what he's about to do. And he could not back down. And I felt that it's my responsibility as the Muslim leader in Central Florida to go up to him and speak one-on-one with him and explain that he's putting American lives at danger and he should reconsider.

ROBERTS: Right. And --

MUSRI: And twice -- ROBERTS: Imam Musri, does a person who is of good heart threaten to burn the holy book of another religion and potentially put lives at risk because of that?

MUSRI: I'm not God to know what's in his heart. I know that speaking to him, that he came across as a good person, a sincere person. But, of course, someone who has such feelings towards others is not a perfect man. But I was willing to take him as is and work with him, try to bring him out of the predicament he put himself in.

ROBERTS: So the question is, where are we today in terms of this Koran burning because he said it's of and then he said, well, maybe it's not off because I didn't get the promise of the mosque movement. Now it appears, according to CNN producer Rich Phillips, that he's traveling to New York for a meeting with Imam Feisal. He said, quote, as far as I understand, we're flying out probably today to meet with the imam tomorrow."

If he's in New York, you could logically assume that there won't be any Koran burning taking place in Gainesville at least tomorrow. What's your understanding of the state of play of a meeting between Terry Jones and Imam Feisal Rauf?

IMAM MUHAMMAD MUSRI, DIRECTOR, ISLAMIC SOCIETY OF CENTRAL FLORIDA: I believe that the understanding was the first step for him to cancel on Thursday afternoon the planned burning.

And second step today we would contact the office of the imam, schedule it as soon as possible and fly up there together or separately and meet with the imam and propose to him that's --

ROBERTS: But at this point, that meeting hasn't been set?

MUSRI: Hasn't been set.

ROBERTS: OK. All right, Imam Muhammad Musri, thanks so much for being with us this morning. It's good to talk to you and we look forward to seeing how this whole thing turns out.

MUSRI: Thank you.

CHETRY: It's just surprising. I mean, this puts the Imam Rauf in a tough situation too because if he appears to be in any way negotiating or seeming willing to concede to, you know, arguably an extremist on the other end, how is that going to work in terms of building a cultural center to bridge religious gaps?

ROBERTS: This whole thing is getting awfully messy.

CHETRY: It is. All right, we're going to continue with that today including follow-up from Afghanistan, protests already taking place there.

But meanwhile, we head back to California with our breaking news coverage out of San Bruno, still burning this explosion that took place because of a gas line rupture happened in a suburb. Dozens of homes wiped out by this powerful explosion that then triggered a deadly inferno. One person confirmed killed. Dozens hurt.

And those numbers could jump as they wait for light this morning to be able to get in there. More than 170 homes are either damaged or gone altogether.

ROBERTS: The death toll expected to rise because the force of that explosion was so big that there was not only fire damage, but explosive damage to the homes around it. They're not going to be able to move in until light and get some of those fires tamped down.

Only then are we going to get a better handle on the scope of this tragedy. An explosion last night, it was just after 6:00 Pacific time. Fireball that went hundreds of feet into the air fueled by a very, very large, 24-inch pipeline setting home after home on fire, melting the taillights off of cars blocks away. It shows you the intensity of the heat that was coming from that fire.

CHETRY: Yes and also, San Bruno is actually just a couple of miles southwest of San Francisco International Airport. That is the reason why people at first thought perhaps this was a plane crash. That's the force in which they felt it. Dan Simon is on the phone right now at the airport. Tell us what the latest is.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): It's a cliche to say, but it looked like a movie set when you got there. We had a firsthand glimpse of what things looked like and what firefighters were dealing with.

Let me just tell you why I'm on the phone and not in front of the camera where I was just a short time ago. The police department has determined that they actually need the space where the media had assembled.

So they are asking us to move our equipment and to move our satellite trucks. So we're in the process of doing that and hope to have our live shot up momentarily.

But, again, just want to sort of show you what it looked like when we got to that scene just a little while after firefighters arrived. Take a look.


SIMON: There were early reports that a plane may have crashed into the hillside. Those reports were not true. But you can understand when you get here why some may have been under that impression.

When fire crews got here, this neighborhood where we are was just totally engulfed in flames. You can see right now firefighters, all they can really do is take a defensive stance, try- to-put out some of the flames and prevent other homes from catching on fire.

This is another vantage point of homes that caught fire. You can see behind us just four or five homes totally leveled. Fire crews not doing anything over there. A few minutes ago, we heard a very loud explosion. We didn't know what it was. It turned out to be this white station wagon, some kind of car explosion. That's another thing that crews out here have to deal with.

We are right next to what we think was ground zero. You can see behind me everything is completely level. To give you an idea just how hot this fire was, want to show you this. Look at the back of this white Volkswagen, the heat just melting this taillight.

And if you walk to the front, you can see that the explosion caused the concrete to travel a great distance. It's just lying here on the windshield of car, a little chunk of it. One of the big problems firefighters are dealing with right now is the wind. You can see it on this crime scene tape just kind of blowing around and you can see it with this smoke. That's helping to spread the flames.


SIMON: And I guess the thing that, you know, impressed me the most or made the biggest impact was just seeing those chunks of concrete just blocks and blocks away from the main blast site. I mean, that just gives you some perspective on how powerful this explosion was.

And right now, the latest in terms of homes destroyed, something like 53 homes, 120 others damaged. You mentioned that one fatality but no doubt, at least according to firefighters we've spoken to, they're expecting that number to rise pretty dramatically.

But we're expecting a press conference at 8:00 local time, about 3 1/2 hours from now so probably no updates until then unfortunately.

ROBERTS: All right, Dan Simon live for us from San Bruno this morning on the telephone. Dan, we appreciate it. We'll see you in just a little while.

President Obama called it a recruitment bonanza for al Qaeda. But a Florida pastor may still go through with his threat to burn the Islamic holy book tomorrow on the anniversary of 9/11. What that could ignite overseas and here at home. It's 36 minutes after the hour.


CHETRY: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning. It's 39 minutes past the hour right now. We're getting word that thousands of people in Afghanistan are already protesting simply because of word that this Florida pastor Reverend Terry Jones is planning to burn the Islamic holy book on 9/11 tomorrow.

As we just heard a few moments ago from the Florida imam who is trying to stop him from doing that, for right now he is not going to do it. If he gets a meeting with the developers of the Islamic center and mosque that's set to be built near Ground Zero. Confused yet?

Well, a lot of us are, but we're trying to wade through this as best we can. Also, take a look at the larger implications for violence because of this very, very charged and upsetting debate that's going on right now.

We learn that he did get a personal call from the Defense Secretary Robert Gates and we also heard from President Obama asking him to call off the Koran burning stunt saying that it would jeopardize U.S. troops abroad.

Joining us now from London is Paul Cruickshank terrorism analyst, a fellow at NYU Center on Law and Security. Welcome and also in D.C., we have CNN National Security analyst Peter Bergen. Thanks to both of you for being with us this morning.

So Peter, it's just interesting how as we've described it you can really hijack a debate, you know, when thousands of people across the world are putting their lives at risk for one reason or another.

But in the end, you know, to have peace between nations and peace between religions, how did it get to the point where this reverend of a small congregation in Florida is able to potentially incite violence globally?

PETER BERGEN, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION SENIOR FELLOW: Well, unfortunately, we've seen this videotape several times before, Kiran.

In 2005 when "Newsweek" published a story about a Koran flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo Prison, a story they later retracted, there were riots across Afghanistan killing some dozens of people.

So, you know, the threat of violence, the fact that General David Petraeus, Secretary Gates, President Obama are making the point that this could cause violence is based on historical reality.

We've seen a cartoonist in Sweden who painted offensive pictures of the Prophet Muhammad being the subject of serious assassination plots by both American citizens and Somali citizens. So there's a long record here, Kiran, of this kind of thing.

CHETRY: Paul, you say it's already happening. You actually got off the phone with a Jihadi earlier this morning. What are they saying this morning about their response and reaction to even word of the potential burning?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, TERRORISM EXPERT: Speaking to a former Jihadi earlier today and he said that the reaction of violence in the Muslim world could be greater than we're seeing the cartoon controversy in 2005, that this is a gift to al Qaeda, a massive recruiting (inaudible) for them.

They've had a bad rap in recent years because they've been killing so many Muslims, but this could allow them to recruit more people into their ranks. Also today here in the U.K, a radical British group has issued what is definitely a warning and many will see as a veiled death threat against this reverend in Florida.

They say that his life is not his own, that he can't go anywhere without being killed and they basically call on Muslims to assassinate this individual. This comes on the heels of an American- Iraqi cleric issuing a death threat against a Seattle artist in July for a sort of similar controversy -- Kiran.

CHETRY: So, Peter, this is interesting because we have the images of this Pastor Jones walking to the microphone yesterday with an imam, the Florida imam, who is then saying I will bring you on a plane, meaning Jones, and take you to New York and you're going to potentially meet with the imam behind this construction of the moving and cultural center blocks from ground zero. What type of picture or image is that in the larger Muslim world?

BERGEN: I mean, that was a hopeful image, but I mean, everybody seems to have reversed their position in the last several hours. I think what Paul says is quite important. I mean, Terry -- Pastor Jones, if he went through with this plan would essentially potentially be signing his own death warrant.

We only have to think about the Salmon Rushdie incident, which, you know, Salmon Rushdie, the British writer who wrote a book in which passage was deemed offensive about the Prophet Muhammad.

And he was the subject of a fatwa from Iranian clerics that haunted him for literally decades. He's still not completely out of the woods. He's had a very serious level of British police protection.

So if Pastor Jones went through with this, he would be putting his own life in danger, which is something that is part of the calculation here surely.

CHETRY: Paul, though, when we talk to the imam who is trying to help tamp this down by getting Pastor Jones not to do this, he said he thinks he painted himself into a bad situation that he can't really get out of, that he potentially doesn't want to go through with this and very well might not. Is there any nuance? Or is it a done deal already in the eyes of extremists?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, in the eyes of extremist, it's clear they see this very useful, that they can use it as a recruiting tool and caused a lot of damage already, but nothing like the damage if there's videotape of all these Korans being burned.

One thing we need to be aware here that there is also a danger not just to this pastor, but to Americans generally even in the United States. There's been more radicalism in recent years, more cases of Americans becoming implicated in terrorism.

And so there's a danger that this sort of action will create a risk even in the United States, Kiran.

CHETRY: And, Peter, is there an understanding - I mean, when we talk about the protests taking place right now in parts of Afghanistan said to possibly be in the thousands already -- that by the very nature of the makeup of America, we can't stop this? It's not so simple even though the vast majority of Americans and American leaders think this is completely utterly wrong?

BERGEN: Well, Kiran, I think that's a really excellent point. I mean, you know, the United States is the first amendment, the right to free speech. It's not the 25th amendment.

So it's deeply embedded in our culture. In countries like Britain, you know, incitement of racial hatred is a crime. In countries like Germany, denial of the Holy Cross is a crime.

None of these are crimes here. You can say whatever you want. You can do whatever you want. You know, providing it's not actual violence. But because --

CHETRY: You can't yell fire in a crowded theater as we know. That's the test case. Isn't this the equivalent of that?

BERGEN: Yes. I mean, it's -- the point is because we're a country of immigrants we have these freedoms, but we don't choose to exercise them all the time.

I could get on this program and make all sorts of very inflammatory statements about all sorts of inflammatory people. It's within my rights, but we don't do that as a country.

You know, Terry Jones, Pastor Jones is really taking advantage of our rights. These rights also come with responsibilities and he is being utterly, utterly irresponsible.

CHETRY: All right, well, this morning it looks like he's moving toward the not burning the Koran, which would be a good thing for everyone. Of course, as we know we can't know for sure. Thanks to both of you. Paul Cruickshank, and Peter Bergen, great to get your take.

ROBERTS: But, you know, Paul Cruickshank makes an excellent point here that for Pastor Jones - and Peter Bergen, well, for Pastor Jones, it may already be too late.

That just the very threat of burning the Koran is enough to put him in serious hot water. Boy, this thing is just -- it's taken all sorts of twists and turns. It's 46 minutes after the hour.

After years of political infighting, a 9/11 memorial at New York's Ground Zero is finally taking shape. Deb Feyerick takes us on a tour of the site just ahead. Stay with us on the Most News in the Morning.


ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning. I'm Rob Marciano, CNN's Severe Weather Center. We do have the threat of flood midsection of the country trying to rain out what's left of Tropical Storm Hermine. It's been quite a ride in the past few days and windy conditions expected across parts of the northern tier. That's not the best news for the fires that are being fought in Boulder, California.

The fires in San Francisco or just south of San Francisco, very close to the airport, just west of the airport. We do think there will be delays in San Francisco because of that, because of the smoke at least in the morning.

Windy conditions across New York, might see some air travel delays there also. All right, here's the midsection of the country Paducah, Kentucky, into Bowling Green, this is what's left over from Hermine as it makes its way through the Ohio River Valley.

Heavy rain at times here although we don't expect to see the flooding and torrential rain that we saw across parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas these past couple of days. Winds gusting to 30 miles per hour across parts of the front range.

We'll talk more about what's going on in the tropics throughout the program. John and Kiran, back to you.

ROBERTS: Thanks so much and continuing our breaking news this morning, here's the latest pictures from KTVU. We haven't had live pictures, Kiran, for a while this morning. It looks wholly different than it did just a little while ago.

CHETRY: Yes, that San Bruno neighborhood, the site of a devastating gas pipeline explosion and rupture that took place about 6:15 p.m. last night so 9:15 Eastern time. It's almost -- let's see, it's five -- minus three hours here. It's 5:00 in the morning coming up on it.

This is just now that they are even able to get close to get a handle on the situation. They have been fighting the fire throughout the night. It was only about a couple of hours ago that they confirmed that they actually got that gas stopped.

ROBERTS: This looks like the area where the main explosion had taken place. probably it's a little to the upper right of the screen.

You can see some of the homes that burned down and are still smoldering there across the street. But the massive fire was being fuelled by this 24-inch gas main has gone out when they cut off the flow of gas. It burned out what was left of the line and the gas going into the homes.

So that fire thankfully is out, but now they are left to pick up the pieces of the other homes on fire. But it does look at this point at least from this vantage point that the majority of fires have actually gone out, which is a good thing.

That will allow rescue crews to get in there or recovery crews, I guess probably more accurately to get into that area and see just how many people might have perished in this fire and explosion. CHETRY: Yes, they say they may not actually make that determination until later this afternoon. We're going to keep covering this for you. We'll have an update with our Dan Simon at the top of the hour.

ROBERTS: Hang on for just a second. The local fire chief according to the "L.A. Times" now saying, six people dead in this fire so there was one up until just moments ago and now six according to the local fire chief.

CHETRY: Sad news and unfortunately not unexpected if you saw what those flames looked like a few hours ago. We'll be right back.


ROBERTS: Seven minutes down at the top of the hour, we're back with the Most News in the Morning. Tomorrow, of course, marks nine years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

CHETRY: And each year and every year, there is a memorial at the Ground Zero site, but it hit numerous roadblocks when it comes to the actual construction of the finished product.

For the first time, there were real signs of progress though. Deb Feyerick got a tour of the site and she is here with an "AM Original" not so much the time it took building it, but the time it took debating.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, absolutely and they negotiated every single detail down to the last nail almost. But, you now, you really can't live in Manhattan without passing Ground Zero at least a few times a year.

For the first time when you look at it, it seems it's finally coming together and the momentum is unstoppable. By this time next year, the Memorial Museum should be completed and the world will have a chance to pay its respects to all 9/11 victims who is died that day and after.


FEYERICK: You can envision it. You can envision where the tower stood just by looking here.

(voice-over): And it's not enough just to look at Ground Zero, you also need to listen. Now every day, thousands of workers here rebuild.

JOE DANIELS, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL SEPTEMBER 11 MEMORIAL MUSEUM: Everything west of where we are standing right now is the memorial site. It's eight of the 16 acres so 50 percent of the entire site is for the memorial and museum.

FEYERICK: Joe Daniels heads up the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. He was here that day and will never forget what he witnessed. DANIELS: Eleven hundred of the victims were never identified. The crushing force of collapse, those families never got human remains back. This is a place where the entire world will come to pay their respects.

FEYERICK: After years of very public battles and stalled negotiations, the memorial is built on the footprints of the two towers. Two granite reflecting pools each with a massive man-made water fall flowing into a deeper pool. What its creator, Michael Arad calls a bottomless abyss.

MICHAEL ARAD, MEMORIAL DESIGNER: We are thousands of gallons streaming in there every minute --

FEYERICK: Arad was 32 and working for the city when the towers fell. His design beat out 5,000 others.

ARAD: I think it was, for me, a way of coming to terms with what I had seen that day.

FEYERICK: The victims' names will be etched at the top of the pool shadowed by day, filled with light at night.

ARAD: I wanted to create a stoic and quiet and defiant memorial that in the face of the tragedy, it sits quietly and silently and unyielding.

FEYERICK: And beneath the pool --

ARAD: It's seven stories below.

FEYERICK: What will be a museum --

(on camera): It has faces of everybody.

ARAD: That's basically right there.

FEYERICK: Key 9/11 items preserved for eternity like this stair well used by hundreds of people as an escape route.

(on camera): That stair, which nobody thought would be extraordinary, in fact, became a bridge to safety for so many people.

ARAD: Exactly, it represents the story of survival.

FEYERICK (voice-over): And this wall, holding back the Hudson River, had it been breached, lower Manhattan would have been under water.

ARAD: This wall is incredibly strong and symbolic.

FEYERICK (on camera): What is this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is an individual steel column remnant.

FEYERICK (voice-over): The stairs and other remnants would have been covered over or removed were it not for 9/11 family members like Anthony Gardener.

(on camera): How vital it was for you to preserve this?

ANTHONY GARDENER, 9/11 FAMILY MEMBER: It was everything. It's a tangible connection to the event and the people who died.

FEYERICK: Gardener is 34. A year younger than his brother Harvey the day he died working on the 83rd floor of Tower One.

GARDENER: To me it's a place of power and a place of connection to history and my brother.

FEY 9/11, we saw the worst of humanity, but in the seconds after it happened, we saw the best of humanity. These artifacts speak to that side of the story.

DANIELS: You know, 9/11, we saw the worst of humanity, but in the second after it happened, we started seeing the best of humanity and these artifacts are going to speak to that side of the story.


FEYERICK: It's remarkable the number of people at Ground Zero every single day rebuilding it essentially piece by piece. Architect Michael Arad who is now 41 said this building is really supposed to be the building equivalent, the structural equivalent of a moment of silence.

And it's really going to seem that way when the trees are up and you have this sort of very quiet area in the middle of all this noise and chaos. It could be really fascinating.

CHETRY: I have goose bumps just even seeing it. It's amazing.

ROBERTS: I drove by the area yesterday and of course, all you can see is the tower beginning to rise out of the ground, but when you get that aerial view or the view from where you are and you see the footprints of the towers coming together, it's going to be amazingly powerful.

FEYERICK: It really, really is especially with the water. Everything just, you know, and again, it's quiet reflection to figure out what that day meant to you and meant to people individually who come to see it.

CHETRY: You know, in the midst of this entire debate over the building of this mosque and cultural center, I hope that's not lost in all of this year because nine years ago, everybody came together in the wake of this tragedy.

FEYERICK: That's exactly right. That's exactly right. That's the way it should be.

ROBERTS: Great look at that this morning for us. Deb Feyerick, thanks so much. Top stories coming your way in two minutes. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)