San Franciscans Mark a Day of Destruction

In San Francisco, thousands of people gathered in the pre-dawn hours at Lotta's Fountain, an architectural survivor of the 1906 earthquake that devastated the city. This year, the event included 11 survivors of the quake. KQED's Cy Musiker reports.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR New, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. In San Francisco, thousands of people gathered before dawn this morning to mark a solemn anniversary. The great earthquake and fires of 1906 struck 100 years ago today and, as the city paused to remember those who died, some survivors were also on hand to tell the tale of what happened. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Cy Musiker reports.

Mr. CY MUSIKER (Reporter, KQED, San Francisco):A large crowd gathered at Lotta's Fountain, one of the few structures that survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. It became a meeting place and message center for the survivors. Today, city officials laid a wreath in the fountain in memory of the thousands who died, 100 years ago today. A minute of silence at 5:13 a.m., when the quake struck, was followed by the sounding of fire and police sirens and the ringing of church bells throughout San Francisco. The South of Market Boys, a civic and drinking organization, began this commemoration in 1916. In fact, some in the crowd had partied all night. Others wore clothes of the period: Victorian dresses for the women; bowler hats, black suits and spats for the men, like Randy Roach(ph).

Mr. RANDY ROACH: Well, I'm proud to say that I'm a fourth-generation San Franciscan, and my great-grandfather was a brick salvager here in 1906.

Mr. MUSIKER: So he had plenty of work?

Mr. ROACH: He had plenty of work, and he made a lot of money.

Mr. MUSIKER: A dozen earthquake survivors made it to today's ceremony. Some remembered the sadness, but a few recalled the disaster as a great adventure. Norma Norwood was one of them.

Ms. NORMA NORWOOD (Survivor, 1906 San Francisco Earthquake): I was conceived and born in a tent in Golden Gate Park. My parents lost everything and they lived in one of the military camps in Golden Gate Park. And my father said it was cold in the tent, and they had to snuggle to keep warm. And what happens when you snuggle? You have a baby.

Mr. MUSIKER: City leaders also took advantage of the memorial to press a message of disaster preparedness. The state is still rebuilding the Bay Bridge, 15 years after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and geologists say another major quake is likely somewhere in the San Francisco Bay area in the next 25 years. Author and historian James Dalessandro was there this morning.

Mr. JAMES DALESSANDRO (Author and Historian): The 1906 earthquake and fire should have been all the warning that we really needed, but obviously we don't learn our lessons the first time. The cost of complacency is horrific.

Mr. MUSIKER: In fact, seismologists and earthquake engineers have just released a report saying another 7.9 quake on the San Andreas fault would kill more than 3,000 people and injure 10 times that number, a casualty rate no better than 100 years ago. For NPR news, I'm Cy Musiker in San Francisco.

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