Friday, April 16, 2010

104th Anniversary Events of 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire

At 5.12 am eaxctly on Sunday, April 18, several hundred people will gather, some in period costumes, for a solemn pageant to reflect on the great devastation of San Francisco's 1906 earthquake and fire.

They will stand in the dark around Lotta's Fountain in the heart of the city on Market Street. A vintage fire truck and street car, and a band will be there along with representatives of the city and emergency services. As the clock reaches 5.12 am, the city sirens will wail and there will be bell clanging from the vintage vehicles.

Surrounded by emergency services, the fire, the police and members of the Emergency Preparedness team, 'it's the safest place to be,' said Lee Houskeeper, press agent for San Francisco Stories and organizer of the 104th commemoration. The city are using the anniversary to prepare San Francisco for the next great quake that has been forecast to occur before 2038.

The wreath laying ceremony is held at Lotta's Fountain because it was one of the few remaining structures in the street and became a focal point for stunned people to gather and post messages as they searched for loved ones.

The ceremony is a legacy of the South of Market Boys who began gathering there every April 18 from 1919, although there was one commemoration event two years after the quake, said Lee. Some of the people who will be there remember being there as children and are now taking their children.

The exact time of the 1906 Great Earthquake is uncertain. The main debate is between 5.11 am and 5.12 am, and some people put it at 5.13 am, he said.

The USGS call it 5.12 am, but even they had to get their information from San Francisco. 'They have estimated several times what the time should be. They can only use best estimates,' he said. They and the city appear to have settled it at 5.12 am in deference to Gloria Hansen, the city's historian and former Head Librarian.

About 3,000 people died, a quarter of a million were left homeless and about $8 billion of damage in today's equivalent was caused.

'To be specific, 522 city blocks, four square miles of the city, 2,593 acres, 28,188 buildings -- all destroyed. For 99 years, until Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the San Francisco earthquake and fire stood as the largest natural disaster in U.S. history,' wrote Carl Nolte in the San Francisco Chronicle in a series of features at the time of the 100th anniversary.

The crowd will then travel on to a gold fire hydrant in the Mission District for a ceremonial spray painting. This hydrant, at 20th and Church Streets, is credited with the miraculous saving of the area with its historic churches. It was the only hydrant that had a water supply.

Firefighters and residents had to pull the heavy steam engines up the hill and fight the raging inferno throughout the night.

'The titanic battle lasted seven hours,' wrote Bill Cereske -

'Hoses were used. Mops and buckets were used. Behind the fireline, homeowners were on their roofs beating out sparks and small fires with blankets, mops, casks of wine - anything that could be used. Doors from the demolished houses were used as heat shields until they too began to smolder. Exhausted firefighters would drop in their tracks, as volunteers took to their lines. Nurses moved through, administering stimulants. Through the night, the fight raged.'

So on Sunday, between 5.40 am and 6 am, residents will spray paint the hydrant in  
memory of their loved ones.
The anniversary events also include two historic San Franciscan restaurants.

A Bloody Mary breakfast will be held at Lefty O'Doul's, near Union Square, from 5.30 - 11 am, where the traditional Sunday breakfasts have been held for about six years.

Manager John Fair will be there from 4 am getting everything ready.

'When you wake up in the morning and see the costumes and the fire-trucks, it really brings you back to those times,' he said. He recalled one diner, too young at 80 years to be a survivor, reflecting on how times were so different from when he was a kid.

The restaurant reflects the history of baseball. It was founded in 1958 by San Franciscan Francis 'Lefty' O'Doul, a New York Giants personality who became coach and manager of the San Francisco Seals.

Tomorrow afternoon, on Saturday at 4 pm, the survivor dinner will take place at John's Grill near Market Street. John's is one of the remaining period pieces of the city, a three-storied, wooden panelled restaurant with period furnishings. It was one of the film settings for The Maltese Falcon, and its walls are adorned with film memorabilia and photos of old San Francisco and well known patrons.

Owner John Konstin has been hosting anniversary dinners there for about 25 years.

'We used to fill up the whole place, of course the numbers have dwindled,' he said. The longevity of the survivors impresses him. 'When you least expect to see someone back the next year, you keep seeing them.'

He remembers Jeanette Scarpa Trapani who died last year at the age of 107. She lived in the city and was a patron there for 80 years.

'I asked her how she was able to live such a long and healthy life,' he said. 'She said it was the martinis!'

The survivor reunions have had great value for the survivors. 'A lot of people knew each other. This would be the place where they saw each other once a year. They would stay at the St Francis...and have dinner here,' he said.

Manager Neil Hayes won't be there today, but he was in the city for the 100th commemoration. 'My wife and I couldn't get near John's that day! Unfortunately, there was no getting our foot in the door,' he said.

By the 101st anniversary, Neil was working at John's and recalls there being two survivors present, surrounded by flash bulbs and the media.

'I think it's fantastic. A sure way of keeping the memory,' he said.

The earthquake is one of the great tragedies of America and he said it was important to show how the city has been raised up from the ashes.

A point Lee Houskeeper agrees with. The significance of San Francisco's achievement is another important reason for keeping the commemoration alive, he said. People all over the world who have been devastated by earthquakes look to San Francisco as the supreme example of a city restored from rubble.

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