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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

B. Thomas Cooper - Editor

"The further you are from the last big earthquake, the nearer you are to the next". - Perry Byerly, Department of Seismology, University of California.

Everyone knew it was coming. Still, no-one could be certain when the next great earthquake would arrive. It did arrive. At precisely 5:12 a.m. on the morning of April 18th, 1906.

The city of San Francisco was devastated by the massive quake. The Earth ripped and buckled. It bucked and swayed. Throughout the city, church bells clanged with unbridled urgency, as damaged structures collapsed in a tempest. From Russian Hill to the Mission district, destruction reigned, unstoppable, as man and beast alike searched for sanctuary among the ruins.

Then came the fires.

Enrico Caruso was awakened from his sleep by the violence of the quake, which shook his room at the Saint Francis Hotel like a rag-doll in the jaws of a bulldog. The legendary tenor had performed brilliantly only the night before. The Opera House, by morning, now a victim of the destructive forces of nature. In the hours ahead, Caruso's life would change forever, as would the city of San Francisco.

Perhaps the subsequent fires could have been prevented, but such was not the case. What began as the Ham and Eggs Fire' soon spread, touching off other fires, quickly engulfing the city in flames. Backfires were set and entire neighborhoods dynamited in an effort to slow the advancing inferno, resulting in greater and greater devastation.

Looters and law-breakers were often shot on sight. The military, more ruthless than precise, demonstrated little compassion for the citizens they were sworn to protect. With every hour, the city was increasingly becoming bedlam. Streets were strewn with the living and the dead alike. Rats, formerly stealth in nature, now gathered in great numbers, bringing with them fears of plague.

And still, the fires burned.

Earthquakes unleash a certain type of destruction. Fires another. When the two happen together, in succession, the results are nearly indescribable. Photographs from the disaster reveal a beaten but resolute society, scraping the soot from their shoes, as they set about the task of rebuilding their city.
Even the very shape of the San Francisco was different now. The shoreline had changed as well, whipped mercilessly by a sudden shift in a fault-line hundreds of miles in length.

Market Street was reduced to rubble. Kearney Street, also lie in ruin, the Hall of Justice, a monument to the destruction. Within hours, much of what did not fall, would burn. Even the Palace Hotel, in all it's splendor, could not be saved. Total loss of life has been estimated at between seven hundred and two thousand lives.

Today, the city of San Francisco waits, as yet another devastating earthquake approaches. When it arrives is anyone's guess, but it will arrive, and with equally devastating results. Is this great city on the coast ready for such a cataclysmic event? Can San Francisco survive another monumental quake like the one that struck in April of 1906? One can only wait and wonder.

B. Thomas Cooper - Editor

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