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Hearing Voices: The S.F. Quake Centennial, Part 1


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

More now from San Francisco. Tomorrow's the 100th anniversary of one of the worst catastrophes ever to hit this country, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The greatest destruction was not from the tremor itself but from the fires that followed. Independent producer Jesse Boggs has the story of what happened.

(Soundbite of opera music)

JESSE BOGGS reporting:

One hundred years ago, on the night of April 17th, 1906, the great tenor Enrico Caruso made his first and only appearance in San Francisco.

(Soundbite of Enrico Caruso)

BOGGS: The event was a brilliant jewel in the city's crown. The Queen of the West hosting the world's finest singer in the world's most popular opera, Bizet's Carmen.

(Soundbite of Enrico Caruso)

BOGGS: But the next day, no one was speaking of Caruso. Most people were not speaking at all. They were wandering in stunned silence or desperately searching or clawing out of rubble.

That morning, just before sunrise, the earth shrugged and San Francisco collapsed and burned.

(Soundbite of Hearing Voices radio project)

Unidentified Man #1: (On the Radio) I had heard in the morning of the earthquake that the Valencia Hotel on Valencia Street had collapsed. So I got up there as quick as I could and I helped pull the dead and the wounded people out.

Unidentified Man #2: I remember my dad taking me across the street that evening and we watched the town burn. And we could see the flash fires breaking out all over the city, you know.

Mr. DENNIS SMITH (Chairman of First Responders Financial): Twenty-eight thousand buildings burned in the fires that were caused by the earthquake.

BOGGS: This is Dennis Smith. He is Chairman of First Responders Financial in New York. He's also a former New York City firefighter and the author of a book about the 1906 disaster called San Francisco is Burning.

Mr. SMITH: Why did the earthquakes cause the fire? Well, because flues were connected to the roofs and the earthquakes displaced many of the flues, and the heat from the fires, instead of going out, went to the roofs of the buildings and created fires. That's one reason.

Another reason is all those morning fires that were created to heat things, like in a Chinese laundry, those fires created to heat the irons so that the laundry people could work ironing sheets and pillow cases and so on, or to put a breakfast on or whatever, those fires became displaced.

BOGGS: But earthquake and fire were just the beginnings of the catastrophe. The city's already tenuous water supply was severely damaged and the city's fire chief, Dennis Sullivan, was mortally injured in the first seconds of the earthquake.

Here's Robert Hartwig, Chief Economist for the Insurance Information Institute in New York.

Mr. ROBERT HARTWIG (Chief Economist, Insurance Information Institute): In 1906 many of the structures that burned simply didn't need to burn down. The leadership of the San Francisco Fire Department was effectively decapitated. We wound up with a political and military control of entities that really shouldn't have been controlling the Fire Department.

BOGGS: Those entities were San Francisco's mayor, Eugene Schmitz, and the acting commander of the U.S. Army's Pacific Division, Brigadier General Frederick Funston.

One of Schmitz' first acts was to issue a proclamation authorizing General Funston's troops to kill anyone suspected of looting or of any other crime.

Mr. SMITH: Funston then brought his soldiers into the city with fixed bayonets.

BOGGS: Once again, Dennis Smith.

Mr. SMITH: He said, Surround the city. Make sure that there is calm in the city and no looting and we will be in control and the firemen will do their job.

Well, he brought 1700 troops in with fixed bayonets and then he took a police force of 600 police officers and sent them around, closing all of the bars. When anyone with any sense of how fire works, what the nature of fire is and how it spreads, would know that the best thing to do is to start using this manpower, if you don't have any water, and start, at the very least, taking stuff, things, furniture, paper, out of these buildings so that you will reduce the fire load.

You can reduce, you know, 50 percent of the fire load if you empty the building out.

Unidentified Man: (Reading Frederick Collins Letter) What a night. We felt that if we got home here alive again, we'd stay here, for no lights of any kind are on in the houses. And they take a shot at you if you're out after 8:30 PM. So you sit in pitch darkness with a gloomy pall of smoke over your heads and a graveyard silence and an occasional earthquake tremor. We never closed our eyes that night and a cold mournful wind began to howl around open chimney holes and busted roofs.

At 5 o'clock, a rifle shot was heard on the block. And some young fellow fell dead who was misprudent enough to venture out to borrow some whiskey for his sick mother. A soldier ordered him to throw it away and shot him for refusing. This is only one of many cases.

Frederick Collins writing to his family from San Francisco, April 24, 1906.

Mr. BOGGS: Whether Frederick Collins actually saw what he reported in his letter or if he was just relaying a story that he had heard is impossible to know at this point. The air in San Francisco was as thick with rumors as it was with smoke, but what is known is that Mayor Schmitz had no authority to issue such an order. It was completely illegal and without precedent in the United States.

As the city's earthquake-damaged water supply dwindled, General Funston and his troops, who had no firefighting experience, resorted to still more drastic methods. Writer and filmmaker James Dalesandro is the author of 1906, a historical novel about the San Francisco catastrophe.

Mr. JAMES DALESANDRO (Author): The Army used dynamite to try to stop the fire. They used black powder. They used gun cotton. They used granulated dynamite. Three extremely flammable substances. Every time they blew up a building, it started another 20 fires. This went on for three days. There's no way to guess how much dynamite they used, boxcar after boxcar after boxcar.

Mr. BOGGS: Along with dynamiting buildings and enforcing the shoot-to-kill decree, Funston's troops were also ordered to evacuate civilians. Again, Dennis Smith.

Mr. SMITH: They had, at my count, about 4,000 people ready, able and willing to work. I have many photographs where these fires are burning, and they were hundreds of men standing with their hands in their pockets, watching these fires burn, being kept out of the area by soldiers with bayonets because they had forced evacuations. Every single incident, where people circumnavigated the soldiers and went back to their homes, at least the incidents that we know of, they saved their homes and their properties.

Every incident where they were forced out of their homes and not allowed back, their property was lost.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BOGGS: In his book, The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906, environmental historian Philip Fradkin writes that it was human error and not inanimate forces of nature that was primarily responsible for the extent of the chaos, the damage, the injuries and the deaths in San Francisco.

Mr. PHILIP FRADKIN (Author): The first mistake was being unaware of history. There was a clear history of earthquakes. There was a very clear history of fires, the city having been destroyed six times in the Gold Rush years. Those earthquakes continued, most notably in 1865 and 1868. And suddenly there was this fairly good-sized earthquake centered right off San Francisco which did a fair amount of damage, and the reaction to it exacerbated what the natural phenomenon was. And some of that reaction you could understand, some of that reaction certainly should have been thought out better, and some of the reaction was pure stupidity.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Our story was narrated and produced by Jesse Boggs and comes to us from hearingvoices.com.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Tomorrow we'll look at San Francisco's struggle to rebuild and how local and national media reported the earthquake and its aftermath. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.