Sunday, April 18, 2010

104th Anniversary of 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire Commemorated at Lotta's Fountain

Those who died in the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire, and those who survived and lived to rebuild San Francisco from the ashes, were honoured at 5.12 am this morning.

About 300 people gathered at Lotta's Fountain to applaud guest of honour and survivor, 104-year-old Bill Del Monte, and to participate in a wreath laying ceremony and moment of silence.

Bill and members of his family travelled in the back of an open-topped vintage car from the Westin St Francis in Union Square, flanked in a small cavalcade by modern and vintage fire trucks and with police outriders. (Photo by Bob David)
As they arrived at Lotta's Fountain in the dark at about 5 am, the San Francisco German Association Band struck up. They were greeted with applause from the crowd, many in costume, recreating the atmosphere of the early 1900s and during the ceremony Bill was formally welcomed and thanked for his appearance.

As Bill sat tucked in the passenger seat, gone from his head was his familiar tan tam o'shanter. Instead, he wore a commemorative fireman's helmet with a badge inscribed '1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Survivor Award.'

It is the first such award ever given, and Bill received it last night at the Survivors' Dinner.

San Francisco Chronicle writer, Carl Nolte, conjured up an image of the devastation of the quake and fire in which four square miles of the city burnt to ashes and 3,000 people died. San Franciscans used to say that if they stood in town long enough, they would see everyone they knew, he said.

He was thankful that no-one left but chose to remain, and said, 'if you want to seek their  monument....look around you.'

The event was supported by the police and fire departments and those involved in emergency management who are urging the city to prepare for the next big disaster. Police Captain Al Casciato said people must 'never forget' the lessons learned from the disaster, and  'never lose sight of' the lessons learned from every national disaster.

Before the official moment of silence and wreath laying, event organizer Lee Houskeeper asked for a special moment of silence for Taren Sapienza who died last year and who for over 25 years had worked to keep the commemoration alive. Taren had taken on the mantle from her father, Leo Sapienza, the last president of the South of Market Boys who began to hold an annual remembrance at Lotta's Fountain in 1919.

After the silence, Lee reminded the crowd that water was now flowing from the fountain once again, due to former Mayor, Willie Brown, and his first campaign promise to restore it. 'He didn't know how bad a shape it was in, but he did it. He kept his promise,' said Lee.

Then 5.12 am approached - 'not 5.11, not 5.13, and not 6.12!'  said Lee in reference to the debate over the precise time of the quake and the issue of daylight saving time. Leading the observance of a minute's silence, he said it was for 'these wonderful San Franciscans who rebuilt our city from the ashes.'

The silence ended, a city siren sent an eerie wail out into the darkness, a bell clanged from a vintage fire truck, the sirens of modern fire trucks blared and, next, a lone piper played Amazing Grace while Captain Casciato layed the wreath at the foot of Lotta's Fountain.

With the solemnities over, the band struck up a rousing 'San Francisco' with which the crowd joined in. Cherie Oliver, who has been attending the ceremony for 25 years, voluntarily took over the mic.

Now living in Redwood City, she said, 'I fell in love with San Francisco when I came here in 1972.' She now views through 'new eyes' the courage of the 1906 survivors, she said, having experienced the 1989 quake that caused great damage to parts of the city.

'If it had been me, I would have got out,' she said. Her imagination took her to 1906 and nightmarish scenes of the fire  chasing people down the street with everyone rushing to get on boats and sail across the bay.

It was the courage of parents to bring their children back to a burnt out city that impressed her the most.

Deborah, who also lives outside of San Francisco, has been attending for 23 years 'to honour the people that died here, and to remember fondly the people that came back to the city again.' What impressed her was that within nine years, the city was able to host a world fair.

In elegant costume, Krista Slanker was there with another purpose. As a member of the Department of Emergency Management, she said, 'It's just a great opportunity to commemorate a very important event for San Francisco,' and which serves as a reminder 'of being prepared for the next emergency,' she said.

There was one dissenting voice to the occasion. A member of the public complained that the organizers had not got their watches set properly and that the moment of silence had occurred a couple of minutes too early!

Whatever the accuracy to a minute, time was pressing for Bill Del Monte and his cavalcade, the official attendees and others wishing to attend the paint spraying ceremony of the heroic, gold fire hydrant at the top of Dolores Park.

In the darkness, they were soon heading for the Mission District.

for more photos, flickr stream by Chris:

No comments: