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 residents—225,000 of 400,000 people—homeless. 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.

I slept, but with a hot, restless slumber. I dreamed. I heard a scream, then another. It was the scream of Caruso before Carmen's prostrate form, and the strident cry of the horse in the stable. They mingled, rose interwoven in a fiendish crescendo—and then I awoke to the city's destruction.

Right away it was incredible—the 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 finality—of 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 end—St. Pierre, Samoa, Vesuvius, Formosa, San Francisco—this 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 incredible—vertical and rotary—look at me in my bed—like 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).

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