"I Was Buried and in Complete Darkness"

The area most devastated during the initial earthquake was a cluster of inexpensive hotels and rooming houses in the South of Market Street area. William Stehr lived on the top floor of the Nevada House at 132 Sixth Street.

I jumped out of my bed and ran to the window and opened it. My room was on the top floor and the window faced south, overlooking the roof of the Ohio House and the Brunswick Hotel beyond it on Sixth Street. By the time I got the window opened, the shaking had grown worse. I was not yet thoroughly awake but I was considerably alarmed, and my first thought was, “My! But this is a heavy quake!”

It came into my head to jump out of the window on to the roof below; but while I was waiting to make up my mind the house I was looking at collapsed with a deafening roar and spilled down in a cloud of dust from which I could plainly hear the agonizing screams of the [tenants]. The dust then came spurting up in so thick a cloud that I could neither see nor breathe. It choked me. So I hurried back from the window to the other end of the room and began to dress myself.

I had just got on my trousers and shoes when I heard another crash. Looking out again through the window I saw that the Brunswick House, the second building south of us, on the corner of Sixth and Howard streets, had also collapsed, and was tumbling into a heap of ruins in a smother of dust. This building was said to have been occupied by 150 people, of whom only fifty escaped with their lives.

I did not put on any more clothes, but jumped up and tried to open the door of my room and get out. But I found that I could not open it. The earthquake had jammed the door, and every jerk of the quake made it faster and tighter. As I was tugging at it I felt the floor tilting and sinking under me, and I knew that the house was going down like the others. So I hung on instinctively to the door handle while the whole floor dropped. As it sank I felt three distinct bumps as the lower floors collapsed in turn under the weight of the roof and the top story. With each bump came a frightful crash and cracking of timbers and glass and the cries of other people in the house who were being destroyed.

There were about fifty people in the Nevada at that moment, and of these only seven escaped, including myself. The landlord, Mr. Lee, his wife and daughter were among those that perished, but his young son Frank was among those saved.

The cries of these people who were being killed, especially the women, were dreadful to hear; even to me, in my own peril, thinking every instant that I would be crushed, they were the most dreadful part of the experience.

Then came another bump, very sudden and very severe. The place fell in on top of me, the breath seemed to be knocked out of my body and I went unconscious. When my senses came back I was buried and in complete darkness. I tried to feel myself all over, working my limbs as best I could, to find out if any bones were broken. But though I could feel that I was painfully bruised all over, I guessed that all my bones were intact.

Then I tried to raise myself, because when I came to I was lying flat; but the weight of the debris that covered my body was more than I could lift. My feet were pinned fast, so I ceased struggling and rested for a minute or so. While I was gasping for more breath for a second struggle I heard somebody running over the debris above me, so I shouted for help as loudly as I could. No attention was paid to my calls; so I began to struggle again, and presently managed to release my feet. But I lost my left shoe. It was wedged in too tight, and it was by pulling my foot out of it that I escaped.

After that I began to grope and feel about me to find some way of escape. Then I began to hear other agonizing screams for help, and screams of “Fire!” And soon after I began to smell smoke, and I fancied I could hear flames crackling sharply. This made me struggle desperately, and soon I got my arms out over my head, and could feel an opening that led upwards on a slope. I worked my way along till I could see a little glimmer of light. I got to the crack in the debris and could see out; but I was in a very tight place and was very tired from the exertion, so I had to stop for a while. But I got a breath of fresh air which revived me, and I began to cough violently and spit out the dust and plaster with which my mouth and lungs seemed to be filled.

After resting for a minute or so, as well as I could judge, I began to pull away the laths and plaster that blocked the passage. It was hard work doing it in such a tight and narrow passage. But after a while I made a hole large enough to crawl through, and then I found that I was not at the end of my trouble. I had to turn on my back and crawl upward through a sort of chimney that was bristling with nails and splinters of laths and plaster that tore my sides and my clothes. But eventually I squeezed through and found myself sitting amid the ruins nearly on a level with the street, and all around me was ruin and debris.

I was too exhausted to mind much, and I was bleeding badly from a cut over the scalp. As the blood was running into my eyes, the first thing I did was to sit on the debris and tie my handkerchief around the cut on my head to staunch it. Then I looked at my watch, which was still going. It was 5:45 o’clock. As I was sitting there, trembling and trying to collect my scattered senses, a man that I don’t think I ever saw before or since climbed up beside me with a bottle of whisky and told me to take a drink. I took it and thanked him. It made me feel much better. Then he went off with the bottle to give a drink to somebody else.

Soon I began to take enough interest in things to look about me. On all sides, where the Nevada, the Ohio, the Brunswick and other lodging houses had been, there was nothing but a big pile of debris. On this pile a number of men were working desperately trying to rescue people that were buried. Some of these men were armed with axes and hatchets, but the majority had nothing but their bare hands to work with.

For some time I was too exhausted to stand up, much less try to help them. I just watched while they dragged at the broken timbers and things, while smoke kept puffing up among them from the fires that had started underneath. Then I began to hear again the cries and shrieks that I had for a time ceased for a time to notice. It was very dreadful when someone gave a long agonizing scream when the fire caught him, and then ceased.

But the rescuers kept on working in each spot until the fire drove them back. Wherever they heard a voice or a cry they started to dig down to it; but in most cases the victims were too deeply buried, and the flames drove away the rescuers while the victim perished.

The above is an extract of an account in Malcolm E. Barker’s book, Three Fearful Days: San Francisco Memoirs of the 1906 earthquake & fire (Londonborn Publications, San Francisco, 1998).

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