The earthquake and
fire that struck San Francisco in April of 1906 killed 3,000 people,
reduced 4.7 square miles of downtown to a desolate wasteland, and left
half the city's residents225,000 of 400,000 peoplehomeless. Here
is one of dozens of first-hand accounts in local archives recalling the
terror of being awakened by the quake. It was written by James M.
Hopper, a newspaper reporter who had spent the previous evening
attending the opening (and final) performance of Caruso singing in Carmen
at the Grand Opera House.
Right away it was incrediblethe violence of the quake. It started with a directness, a savage determination that left no doubt of its purpose. It pounced upon the earth as some sidereal bulldog, with a rattle of hungry eagerness. The earth was a rat, shaken in the grinding teeth, shaken, shaken, shaken with periods of slight weariness followed by new bursts of vicious rage. As far as I can remember, my impressions were as follows: First, for a few seconds a feeling of incredulity, capped immediately with one of finalityof incredulity at the violence of the vibrations. "It's incredible, incredible"I think I said it aloud. Then the feeling of finality. "It's the endSt. Pierre, Samoa, Vesuvius, Formosa, San Franciscothis is death." Simultaneously with that, a picture of the city swaying beneath the curl of a tidal wave foaming to the sky. Then incredulity again at the length of it, at the sullen violence of it. "It's incrediblevertical and rotarylook at me in my bedlike a fish in a frying-pan." This last figure pleased me. "Just like a fish in a frying-pan," I repeated. Then an impulse to get out of the hideously grinding walls, mastered immediately, solely from a repugnance, as I remember it, to making a show of myself. "No, if I die, I die in bed, not with my legs bare to the skies." Incredulity again at the mere length of the thing, the fearful stubbornness of it. Then curiosity"I must see it."
I got up and walked to the window. I started to open it, but the pane obligingly fell outward and I poked my head out, the floor like a geyser beneath my feet. Then I heard the roar of bricks coming down in cataracts and the groaning of twisted girders all over the city, and at the same time I saw the moon, a calm, pale crescent in the green sky of dawn. Below it the skeleton frame of an unfinished sky-scraper was swaying from side to side with a swing as exaggerated and absurd as that of a palm in a stage tempest.
Just then the quake, with a sound as of a snarl, rose to its climax of rage, and the back wall of my building for three stories above me fell. I saw the mass pass across my vision swift as a shadow. It struck some little wooden houses in the alley below. I saw them crash in like emptied eggs and the bricks pass through the roof as through tissue paper.
The vibrations ceased and I began to dress. Then I noted the great silence. Throughout the long quaking, in this great house full of people I had not heard a cry, not a sound, not a sob, not a whisper. And now, when the roar of crumbling buildings was over and only a brick was falling here and there like the trickle of a spent rain, this silence continued, and it was an awful thing. But now in the alley someone began to groan. It was a woman's groan, soft and low.
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).