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by Ron Cruger
Hell on Earth
(The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire)
      Those residents of the exclusive apartments on Nob Hill who were early risers first felt the floor shiver. Wives looked at their suddenly awakened husbands. “What was that?”
      Down where ocean meets land a fisherman noticed the tide growing stronger and felt the ground under his feet move sideways.
      On Market Street, downtown, an off-duty policeman on his way home from his 8-hour shift felt something move under his shoes. He looked up and saw the city’s tall buildings move on their foundations. He ran to safety in Union Square.
      It was a few seconds after 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906. By this time, everyone in San Francisco knew what was happening. It was an earthquake – a big one.
      Two hundred and ninety six miles of the northernmost stretch of the San Andreas fault had ruptured. The land beneath San Francisco rumbled, roared and convulsed for forty seconds – seconds that seemed like an hour – a lifetime to some. To many it was the end of their lifetime.
      The temblor registered as having a 7.7 to 8.5 magnitude.
Buildings collapsed, roads twisted and crumbled into shards of asphalt and cement.
      The powerful shaking dislodged chimneys, brutally taking the lives of those close. Roofs broke apart and smashed to the ground.
      The city’s water mains rattled, twisted, broke and formed tall geysers of clear water all over the city. For a few moments the broken water mains were the least of anyone’s problems. Then the fires started.
      Ruptured gas lines split asunder all over the city. The sound of the exploding gas pounded thousands of eardrums.
      The new Ewing seismograph, installed at the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton, attempted to accurately measure the earthquake, but it was completely overpowered by the strength of the temblor. The earthquake amplitude was so severe that it exceeded the range capability of the seismograph.
      The quake was felt from the south of Oregon to the south of Los Angeles and as far inland as central Nevada.
      Due to the burst water mains all over the city the fire department had to use dynamite to destroy some building in order to stop the fires from spreading. Regardless of the attempt the fires continued to spread over the city. Those residents who weren’t killed by the falling buildings or the fires felt as though they were living a nightmare.
      For almost four days the fires raged. Firemen had no water to fight the flames. The fire destroyed much of San Francisco. Fire alone destroyed 4.7 square miles of the city known as the “Paris of the West.”
      San Francisco in 1906 was the ninth largest city in the U.S. It had a population of 400,000. More than 225,000 were left homeless by the disaster. Five hundred city blocks were destroyed.
      The death toll has become uncertain. City officials said that casualties were in the vicinity of seven hundred. It has been claimed that the officials low-balled the death toll as a public relations ploy. Modern calculations set the number of dead in the vicinity of 3,000.
      There were 64 deaths attributed to the quake in Santa Rosa and 102 in San Jose.
      24,671 wood buildings were lost, 3,168 brick buildings were destroyed. Estimated property damage was $400,000,000 in 1906 dollars from both fire and earthquake. $80,000,000 from the earthquake alone.
      In 1906 there were about 650,000 people living in the San Francisco Bay area. Today there are more than seven million people making their homes in the same area.
       In 2003 scientists estimated that there is a 62% probability of a 6.7 or larger earthquake that would hit the Bay Area in the following 30 years.
       Tick, tock.