"The most terrible thing I saw was the futile struggle of a policeman and others to rescue a man who was pinned down in burning wreckage. The helpless man watched it in silence till the fire began burning his feet. Then he screamed and begged to be killed. The policeman took his name and address and shot him through the head." (Adolphus Busch).

On April 18th 1906, at 5:12 a.m., the city of San Francisco was near the epicenter of one of the most destructive earthquakes ever witnessed. The foreshock was powerful enough to be felt throughout San Francisco, and the main quake hit 20 seconds later. The ground broke open for more than 434 kilometers along the San Andreas rift. 30 miles northwest of San Francisco, the ground moved 21 feet in the one minute the quake lasted. The shocks were felt as far as central Nevada, southern Oregon and south of Los Angeles, an area of 603 504 square kilometers.

The quake registered 7.9 on the moment magnitude scale (8.25 on the Richter scale), and in less than a minute leveled buildings, broke gas lines and power lines, and killed an unknown number of people. Because of the silty ground on which much of the city was built, many houses simply collapsed as the ground on which they were built liquefied.

"Of a sudden we had found ourselves staggering and reeling. It was as if the earth was slipping gently from under our feet. Then came the sickening swaying of the earth that threw us flat upon our faces. We struggled in the street. We could not get on our feet. Then it seemed as though my head were split with the roar that crashed into my ears. Big buildings were crumbling as one might crush a biscuit in one's hand. Ahead of me a great cornice crushed a man as if he were a maggot - a laborer in overalls on his way to the Union Iron Works with a dinner pail on his arm."

The response to the disaster was quick. By 7 a.m. troops had started to arrive to assist with peacekeeping and rescue operations. By this time, the fires that had broken out after the quake had grown substantially, and were threatening to overwhelm the city. At 8:14 a.m. an aftershock destroyed many more buildings, and spread further panic.

Although all phone lines out of the city were destroyed, a wireless telegraph message was sent from San Diego to the USS Chicago. Admiral Caspar Goodrich immediately proceeded at full steam towards San Francisco. This marked the first time that wireless telegraphy was used in a major disaster.

Survivors gathered wherever they could find water. Firefighters, bereft of water after the quake, started to demolish first individual buildings and eventually entire blocks at a time in an attempt to stop the fires. At 3:00 p.m. Mayor Schmitz announced that all looters would be shot on sight. By nightfall, fires were still blazing throughout the city.

For the next three days, the fires continued to burn, while heroic efforts to protect the refugees and stop the fires were made. On April 20th, 18 seamen supervised the evacuation by sea of 20 000 people on the U.S.S. Chicago. This was the largest evacuation by sea ever. A fire that had destroyed the Mission district was finally stopped by a handful of firefighters and 3 000 volunteers armed with brooms and a little water from an operating hydrant. One eye-witness gave an account:

"The fire was going on in the district south of them, and at intervals all night exhausted fire-fighters made their way to the plaza and dropped, with the breath out of them, among the huddled people and the bundles of household goods. The soldiers, who were administering affairs with all the justice of judges and all the devotion of heroes, kept three or four buckets of water, even from the women, for these men, who kept coming all night. There was a little food, also kept by the soldiers for these emergencies, and the sergeant had in his charge one precious bottle of whisky, from which is doled out drinks to those who were utterly exhausted."

While the official death toll is set at roughly 700 people, the actual toll is believed to be much higher - possibly as high as 3 000 or 4 000. Over 500 blocks of downtown San Francisco were destroyed. The cost was estimated at over $400 000 000 (in 1906 - given inflation, the cost would be far higher today). Because this was the first natural disaster of such magnitude to be captured with photography, the event was particularly bought to peoples attention, and donations and offers of help streamed in from around the world. These were declined by president Theodore Roosevelt.

The quake became a source of intense study by geologists and seismologists, whose study was in its infancy at that time. The Lawson report, published in 1908 by A.C. Lawson is regarded as one of the most important studies on a single event. A second report, by H.F. Reid, published in 1910, presented the Elastic Rebound theory, which is still in use today as an explanation of a previously unknown seismic activity.


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