- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Sirens wailed through the city before dawn yesterday as residents marked the moment 100 years earlier when the great quake shattered the city, killing thousands as it leveled buildings and touched off fires that burned for days.

A few centenarians who survived that devastation joined hundreds of residents for a moment of silence and a memorial ceremony to remember the disaster.

“What an extraordinary example, the pioneering spirit that defines our past, I would argue defines our present, and gives me optimism of the future,” said Mayor Gavin Newsom. “San Francisco, a city of dreamers. And San Francisco, a city of doers.”

Most of the city’s 400,000 residents were still in bed when the magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906.

The foreshock sent people scrambling, and the main shock arrived with such fury that it flattened crowded rooming houses. The epicenter was a few miles offshore of the city, but it was felt as far away as Oregon and Nevada. In 28 seconds, it brought down the City Hall.

From cracked chimneys, broken gas lines and toppled chemical tanks, fires broke out and swept across the city, burning for days.

Historians say city officials, eager to bring people and commerce back to the city, radically underestimated the death toll. Researchers are still trying to settle on a number, but reliable estimates put the loss at more than 3,000, and as high as 6,000.

In any case, it ranks as one of the costliest disasters in U.S. history, a benchmark with which later calamities are compared.

“It doesn’t really feel like a party to me,” said Bob McMillan, 37, who walked to the memorial event. “There is a sense of the tragedy, but there is also that San Francisco optimism. It’s kind of like, ‘We’re still standing.’”

Communities up and down the San Andreas fault planned to commemorate the earthquake yesterday. In Santa Rosa, where 119 of the 7,500 citizens were killed, 119 volunteers dressed in vintage garb walked by candlelight behind a horse-drawn hearse to the cemetery where 15 earthquake victims were buried in a mass grave.

Historians generally agree on one point: that San Francisco will fall again in a quake. But they disagree over whether people should love the city or leave it.

A study released Monday determined that a repeat of that 1906 temblor today would cause 1,800 to 3,400 deaths, damage more than 90,000 buildings, displace as many as 250,000 households and result in $150 billion in damage.

Philip L. Fradkin, author of “The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself,” makes the Bay Area his home in spite of the threat.

“San Francisco fell, and it will fall again,” Mr. Fradkin said. “And if we can’t deal with the realities of history, we’re lost.”

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