Wednesday, April 18, 2007

April 18

Not long after 5:00 a.m. one hundred and one years ago, the city of San Francisco convulsed when the plates along the San Andreas Fault unexpectedly slipped several meters to the right. The resulting earthquake -- now believed to have reached a magnitude of 7.7 to 7.9 on the Richter Scale -- could be felt across an area of 375,000 square miles from Oregon to Los Angeles and eastward into Nevada. The destruction was massive throughout the region, though nowhere was the quake felt more than in the city. Buildings dropped to the ground, especially in the South-of-Market area of the city, where tenement buildings thundered down, trapping and killing thousands of working class and poor San Franciscans.

One eyewitness somehow avoided the fate that quite literally struck so many that day. He lived to describe it:
Outside I witnessed a sight I never want to see again. It was dawn and light. I looked up. The air was filled with falling stones. People around me were crushed to death on all sides. All around the huge buildings were shaking and waving. Every moment there were reports like 100 cannons going off at one time. Then streams of fire would shoot out, and other reports followed.

I asked a man standing next to me what happened. Before he could answer a thousand bricks fell on him and he was killed. A woman threw her arms around my neck. I pushed her away and fled. All around me buildings were rocking and flames shooting. As I ran people on all sides were crying, praying and calling for help. I thought the end of the world had come.
By mid-day, the fires had begun; by the end of the day, much of the city was alight. Troops from Ft. Miley began dynamiting buildings to create fire breaks. Not infrequently, the explosions created more fires. Most civilians were able to make their way to some kind of safety, although thousands of people were unable to leave their neighborhoods due to the reefs of debris. In addition to the 500 alleged looters whose bodies were left in the streets as a warning to imitators, military and police officers shot at least four people who could not be rescued from the flames -- one man who was pinned under burning rubble, and three who were trapped on the roof of the Windsor Hotel at Fifth and Market, not long before the roof collapsed. Five thousand people witnessed the mercy killings at the Windsor.

By the time the fires exhausted themselves four days later, 25,000 buildings no longer existed, and nearly 500 city blocks were reduced to ruin. Half to three-quarters of the city’s 400,000 people were rendered homeless. An accurate count of the dead was never accomplished; the best contemporary estimates suggest that 3000 people or more may have perished in the earthquake and fire.