Saturday, April 18, 2009

1906 SF Earthquake Survivors

'I never expected all of this,' said 103-year-old Bill Del Monte, tucked in the back of the vintage car with 106-year-old Rose Cliver, mini-explosions of camera flashes and eager faces all around them.

At just after 5 am today, Bill and Rose were at the heart of the 103rd anniversary ceremonies to commemorate the 1906 earthquake and fire disaster that devastated San Francisco - see previous blog

Both centenarians are among the last few known survivors. Accompanied by their families, they were amazingly lively and alert and thoroughly enjoyed the occasion.

Bill was only three-months-old when the quake and fires occurred so doesn't remember them, said his neice, Janette, but his older brothers could recall them throughout their lives.

He was the baby of six children, his siblings being Attilio, Eugene, Angiolina, who tragically died as a toddler, Guido, and Eva, Janette's mother, who didn't quite equal Bill in the longevity stakes but did achieve the grand age of ninety-six.

Their home was badly damaged in the quake. His grandmother picked Bill up, said Janette, and he was bundled with the rest of the family onto the back of a buckboard. His brothers remembered their father driving the horse and cart down to the Ferry Building through streets burning on both sides.

As a family they were more fortunate than others for they owned a home across the Bay. They were able to catch a ferry and they stayed across the Bay until eventually they could return.

But the family were keen to return to the city. 'We always wanted to be in San Francisco,' said Bill, who now lives in Marin and says he has lived half his life in the city and half across the Bay. They were also fortunate, said Bill, in that neither any of the family or friends of the family died in the quake.

His father, Angelo Del Monte, was the restaurateur who founded the Fior d'Italia Restaurant in 1886. The restaurant was also badly damaged by the quake. 'He had to rebuild it,' Bill said, 'Not that I remember,' he added.

Today it is the oldest Italian restaurant in America and although the family no longer own it, they have been invited there by the current owners for a nostalgic anniversary drink.

This is the first time Bill has attended the earthquake anniversary in San Francisco though he has attended others around the Bay for about the last ten years.

This year so far has produced a number of special events for him. He celebrated his 103rd birthday in January at Top of the Mark, the sky-bar at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, enjoying not just the party but views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.

'He had a wonderful time,' said Janette.

Rose, at an equally incredible 106 years of age, is also very sociable.

'She is still very sharp.' said her niece, Gloria, the only difficulty in conversation being her hearing. 'She calls it her "tin ear" but her mind is as sharp as a tack.'

Because of Rose's hearing and the fact that she was seated at a slight distance by virtue of being in the vintage car, it wasn't possible to interview her. She smiled and intimated that it was too difficult, though to her credit she did have an animated chat with a tall gentleman who managed to lean over the back of the car and speak into her ear.

But her family were there to speak for her which, like Bill's family, they did in glowing terms.

Rose's parents owned a grocery store in 1906 and as the city was ravaged, rescuers looked for help from every quarter.

'One thing I do know,' said Gloria, 'they came and took groceries from the grandfather - ie Rose's father - to help feed the people who were homeless.'

The family lived in the south of the city and for a while fled their home.

'They lived in Excelsior but went up into the Excelsior Hills - Bernal Heights - and could see the whole city burning. And that's how they lived - without anything,' she said. Again, like Bill's family, they were fortunate in that none of the family or their friends were killed.

Rose's parents were Swiss, with the family name of Wyrsch. Her father, Joseph, was from Berne, and her mother, Lena, from St Gallen, though Rose was born in Portland before the family moved to San Francisco and settled in Excelsior where there was a high German-Swiss population.

Her father didn't start to have children until he was forty, though her mother was younger, said Gloria, but the couple went on to have twelve healthy children. Where they were living at the time there was lots of land. Her mother used to say she could have twelve children because she could let them run around, said Gloria.

Rose was the seventh child, number seven being the heavenly symbol for perfection!, with brothers Amiel, Albert, Alfred, Joseph, George, Herman, who was Gloria's father, Bill and Francis, and sisters Pearl, Mary and Bertha.

As with Bill, there is longevity in the family for Mary lived till she was 100 years-old and Bertha, who died only a few months ago, until the age of 98 years. Sadly, though, there was a family tragedy with Francis as a toddler. He used to carry a pencil around, said Gloria, and in those days there was lead in pencils. He died from lead poisoning at the age of seventeen-and-a-half months.

There is no doubt Rose is a trail-blazer for she continued to live alone until the last six months. 'Well into her hundreds,' said Gloria, she would cross 19th Avenue every week by herself to go to her hairdressers.

'Rose, why don't you take a cane when you go out?' Gloria used to ask, but the question fell on deaf ears in more ways than one. Rose cherished her independence. She only finally used a walking aid when she reached the point of needing a walker.

Gloria began to help her with her groceries 'at least 12 years ago,' she said, though not sure about the exact passage of time. But otherwise Rose remained independent, cooking and cleaning her home. And very clean it was, said Gloria.

Today, Rose has three 'roses' in her life, for six months ago she went to live with her son, Don, aged 77 years, and his wife, called Rose, in Santa Rosa. Sadly, her daughter, Roberta, died about last year, said Gloria.

Rose, however, maintains a zest for life. The family weren't sure if she would have wanted to come to the anniversary commemoration but she was very keen to do so. 'And she LOVES to gamble!' said Gloria - on slot machines.

'She loves to do things. She's very active. 'The doctors look at her and can't figure her out. She is amazing. She's never had surgery.'

Celebrating Rose's life as well as commemorating the Great Quake, were not only family members, but family who have kept up a tradition of being firefighters. Rose's brother, Albert, was a firefighter, and with her that day were nephews Victor and Herman, now retired firefighters, and Paul, Gloria's son, a serving officer. Not able to be there was Paul's brother, Greg, also in the fire service.

Fittingly, the commemoration was not just about the past earthquake and fires but also about preparing people for the unfortunate possibility of another huge earthquake hitting the city.

Fire officer Harold French, Chief's Aide, compared firefighting skills in 1906 to today.

'They didn't have the equipment we have today. It was much harder, you can't put out a fire with a bucket, they had to use brute strength,' he said. 'Nowadays we have fire engines that can pump 300 or 400 gallons a minute.'

The worst of the fires in the earthquake were over in three days but Harold has read of some fires continuing for a week or ten days. They built with heavy timber, and once they get going...' he said.

Buildings in San Francisco today are of mixed construction standards because rebuilding after the quake was done in such a hurry that some of the codes were deregularised. Although the city is doing its best with retrofitting, not all are up to current standards of being quake-proof.

I asked the Chief's Aide about the hazards.

Most buildings in San Francisco have to be sprinklered, he said, but a lot are so close together and built of wood, especially in North Beach, that the fire risk is very high. And the streets are so narrow and winding, he added.

He admits that a major earthquake is one of their biggest fears. 'We train and have drills freqently just in case, but it's still one of the biggest, biggest concerns,' he said.

'Fires we can contain, but earthquakes...'

pics: Bill and Rose; Cari and Herman, Gloria, Paul, Victor; Janette

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