BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — The blast shattered windows, roared like a jet engine and sucked the air out of the room where Gloria Ruckman stood after having breastfed her 17-day-old son.
Struggling to breathe, Ruckman wrapped her son in a firefighter jacket owned by her husband and told her mother they needed to leave. They rushed through the yard and got to the padlocked gate, which Ruckman’s mother struggled to open. Ruckman fell and steam rose from her back as blisters started to form.
The women and child managed to escape the conflagration, attorney Daniel Rodriguez told a Kern County jury Monday, but did not emerge unscathed.
Ruckman, her husband, Robert Ruckman, son, Robert Elias Ruckman, mother, Amalia Leal and her husband, Gil Leal are suing PG&E, blaming the utility for the Nov. 13, 2015, gas pipeline explosion at Wible and Houghton roads that destroyed the Ruckman home and inflicted burns to both women. Ruckman spent months in a burn center and underwent multiple surgical procedures to replace, charred dead skin.
Also being sued are Big N Deep Agricultural Development, which hit the pipeline, and Ag-Wise Enterprises, which hired Big N Deep for the job.
The jury will be tasked with deciding the case of the five plaintiffs separately, and the responsibility, or lack thereof, of each defendant.
Rodriguez, representing the Ruckmans, began his opening statement Monday by telling the jury PG&E, in the years before the blast, publicly touted itself as a “safety-first” company while ignoring staffing and equipment needs and failing to provide proper supervision for marking pipelines.
Bulldozer operator Joseph Michael Ojeda, driving through an unmarked field, hit a large transmission pipeline, the explosion launching the vehicle 30 feet through the air and flipping it upside down. Ojeda’s body, found even further away, was incinerated.
PG&E says field properly marked
PG&E attorney Dennis Ellis disputed those allegations, saying the utility properly marked the field and has six witness who can attest to that.
He spent much of his opening statement focusing on Big N Deep and its owner, Jeff Alexander, listing multiple incidents where the company struck gas or oil lines and operated in unmarked fields despite knowing gas lines were in the vicinity.
A number of factors played into the “horrific” event experienced by the Ruckman family, Ellis said.
One of them, he said, was Alexander dug on an expired ticket in violation of safety protocols.
“This is commercial excavation,” Ellis said. “People who should know what they’re doing.”
Attorneys for Big N Deep and Ag-Wise Enterprises will present opening statements Tuesday.
Anyone who plans to dig is required to call 811 and report the location so PG&E and other utilities can mark pipelines in the area within two work days. A work ticket is issued with a start and expiration date for when the digging can occur.
Rodriguez told the jury 4-foot stakes are required for marking pipelines in rural areas, and markers must be no more than 50 feet apart.
After the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people and leveled a neighborhood, PG&E heavily publicized the 811 number. There was a surge in ticket requests
PG&E management made it known jobs would be at risk if lines weren’t marked within the two-day period, Rodriguez said.
But the company didn’t hire the hundreds of extra locators needed to mark the lines, the attorney said. Those working in that department began to cut corners.
They started falsifying tickets, writing they had marked lines when they hadn’t or only marking portions of a line, Rodriguez said.
“It takes hard work,” he said. “It takes commitment. And, most of all, it takes corporate management that cares.”
In the Wible road case, the locator failed to mark an entire field within the dig area, Rodriguez said, displaying documents subpoenaed from the California Public Utilities Commission, which provides oversight of PG&E. That locator also used the wrong type of markers — 18-inch flags — and placed them in some cases hundreds of feet apart.
Ellis said locators have some discretion on whether to use flags or stakes to mark a property. A guidebook says stakes are supposed to be used in rural areas, but a few pages earlier notes flags can be used on dirt or lawn, both of which were near the Ruckman home.
Joseph H. Low IV, representing Richard Ruckman, his son and Gil Leal, told the jury the boy suffered a blast-induced traumatic brain injury. He has shown cognitive delay, has a speech impediment, balance issues and difficulty with fine motor skills. He tested at the bottom half-percentile for verbal comprehension.
The child can’t bear loud noises, Low said. He becomes hysterical, sobbing and covering his ears.
“Loud noises completely unravel him,” Low said.
The child and women both have post-traumatic stress disorder, attorneys said. Ruckman and Leal have difficulty being intimate with their husbands because they feel they’re no longer attractive. Ruckman says her skin reminds her of an armadillo’s hide.
A TV show or movie can immediately bring the incident back to mind. In one instance, Ruckman had to leave the room when a “Game of Thrones” episode showed a dragon breathing fire on people, Rodriguez said.
The Ruckmans built a new home many miles away from their old one. There are a number of differences reflecting the impact the explosion had on their lives.
There are no gas appliances. The walls are extra thick. Fire extinguishers are in every room. Hoses lie on every side of the house.
“Just in case,” Rodriguez said.