San Francisco: Memories of an Earthquake The San Franciso quake of 1906 killed more than 3,000 people and sent tens of thousands on the run. Many of those were children, paired off with siblings, to find their way to safety. On the 100th anniversary of the quake, through letters and oral histories, a look at what the experience was like for those children.
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San Francisco: Memories of an Earthquake

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San Francisco: Memories of an Earthquake

San Francisco: Memories of an Earthquake

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Tomorrow, before dawn, thousands of people are expected to gather around Lotta's Fountain in downtown San Francisco. That's the place where, 100 years ago, survivors of the great San Francisco earthquake and fires went to search for family and friends.

More than a dozen survivors will participate in a ceremony to commemorate that disaster, which killed more than 3,000 people. A wreath will be laid at the fountain, one minute of silence will follow, and then church bells and fire station sirens will sound throughout the city.

Today, on the eve of the anniversary, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg presents written and spoken memories of some who were children when the earthquake struck.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Lily Sung remembered the date very well.

LILY SUNG: 1906, April 18th. It was two days after my birthday.

STAMBERG: LilY had just turned seven at the time of the quake. Imagine being a child then when the earth heaved and every solid thing you had been sure of, changed. For a child, so dependent on others, occupied as children are by what they can see in front in them, and the people they care for, the great San Francisco earthquake had to be terrifying.

Twelve-year-old Elsie Cross thought the world was coming to an end. An actor reads part of a letter Elsie wrote to her friend Ruth.

INSKEEP: (Reading) "Wednesday morning I was awakened by a slight shaking. Now, as earthquakes are usually gentle and mild, I waited for it to pass away. Instead of that, it began to wrench, and then it began to just go up and down as a cat shakes a rat. I saw my father in the front room try to get to my mother, and also saw him thrown twice across the floor. Our chimney went through the basement and things fell right and left."

STAMBERG: Eyewitness accounts, written and recorded, are gathered in various California archives. Margaret Sharp was 76 when she taped her memories of being 11 and watching the frightened hordes frantically trying to get out of San Francisco, carrying whatever they could

MARGARET SHARP: It was two or three days after Easter, and they'd have hat boxes with the Easter bonnets-- probably the only things they'd saved--parrot cages, and the most outrageous costumes you've ever seen in your life because they just put on anything they happened to have over their night clothes or just the first thing they picked up to get out of the houses.

STAMBERG: Many families got out of San Francisco by ferry. Mrs. Samuel Haile, who was 10 in 1906, said it was a long, circuitous journey for her and her five sisters, the youngest just seven months old. But, eventually, her parents got them to the ferry building.

SAMUEL HAILE: Well, here we were, all cooped up and just mobs of people, and we could look at the open doors going toward Market Street and there, there was nothing but embers...

Unidentified Speaker: (Unintelligible)

HAILE: ...all these buildings had been burned right to the ground and there were just embers glowing. And I guess I must have gone to sleep, because I don't remember crossing in the ferry, but when we got off the ferryboat, I looked out and I thought, where it was the end of the pier, it was all brilliant and, later on, I discovered it was San Francisco burning. I mean, it was two or three years before I realized that this is really what I was seeing.

STAMBERG: Lily Sung was seven when San Francisco burned--the daughter of the city's first Chinese Presbyterian minister. On that April morning, her father organized everybody into groups to escape the city. Interviewed in 1980, Lily remembered that desperate exodus. In her group were her two sisters, ages 14 and three, her five-year-old brother and a neighbor.

SUNG: But she had bound feet, about, oh, three and a half inches, and she couldn't walk very fast and there were crowds that were pushing us up along the street. We're just supposed to go down towards the ferry, but there were so many people trying to get away from the fire, so they thought the thing to do was to go up, and sometimes it wasn't easy to get around these places that had the houses all fallen down. We could feel the fire on our faces, even several blocks away.

My sister tried to keep us away from the fire, because we were walking so slowly because of this lady. Partway, this lady fell against my sister and she dropped the sack--my sister--with a bottle of water. And the bottle broke and the clothing was all wet and the bread was all soaked; and that was the first time I ever saw her cry because she was responsible for us, and here was the food and the water.

STAMBERG: Night came. Lily Sung and her family and the neighbor had no place to sleep or rest. Somewhere around Taylor Street, they stopped.

SUNG: We couldn't really lie down, but we sat as well as we could. See, I had a little brother and a little sister, and they hung on tightly to me, and they were such good children they didn't cry, even when they were knocked down. I was seven. I felt quite responsible and quite the big sister. So, they would not cry, but they'd look up tearfully at me and hold my hand closer. We three just held onto each other because we mustn't be parted from our big sister and from this lady.

STAMBERG: It took two days for them to reach the ferry. On a normal day, it would've taken an hour. They spent another day waiting in line to board a boat. Eventually, they got across the bay to Oakland and were met by Red Cross and Salvation Army helpers.

SUNG: They were so good. They were so kind. They gave us each a cup of coffee with Carnation cream and sugar and each a doughnut, and that was the first real food we had had in--that was the third day. And, oh my, that tasted so good. And when I smell coffee now--hot coffee with Carnation cream--I can always remember that.

STAMBERG: The kindness of strangers, the taste of a creamy drink and memories of the fear, and displacement, and responsibility, and worries. Where are my parents? What will become of us? Is my sister all right? Do I have a place to sleep?

Those questions arise for children and adults in every disaster--hurricane, war, upheaval. One hundred years ago, they floated in the stained air over San Francisco just as the smoke rose from the earthquake-lit fires that scorched the city.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


CHOIR: (singing) (unintelligible)

INSKEEP: Those oral histories and letters come to us, courtesy of the California Historical Society, the University of California's Bancroft Library and the Chinese Historical Society of America. You can find other reports in our 1906 earthquake series by going to

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