The San Francisco Earthquake - April 18, 1906

Created on Apr 20, 2018 by Kathy Pinna

Fire or quake? Quake or fire? Over a century later, the debate still rages about whether the San Francisco earthquake caused more damage or whether it was the ensuing fires.

No matter which was responsible for the greater devastation, the truth is that the great San Francisco California earthquake was the deadliest earthquake in U.S. history.

The earthquake was also the first natural disaster of its magnitude to be documented by photography and motion picture footage which you can view for yourself below.

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Video of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

Although the last survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake died in January 2016 - William Del Monte was 3 months old when the quake hit - there is, to this day, a remembrance ceremony marking the quake. A moment of silence is observed at 5:12 a. m., a wreath is laid, and the song "San Francisco" is sung. In years past, survivors always attended and were honored for their courage and perseverance. The memories of survivors at the time (following the video) are fascinating - and sometimes horrifying. And you can see the devastation, while people move with purpose and resolve, in this 1906 video taken just days after the earthquake.

The Great Quake On Wednesday, April 18 1906, at 5:12 a.m. - before the sun rose - San Francisco, California was hit by a massive earthquake. An estimated 3,000 people were killed in the city itself - by the quake, which came in two tremors a few seconds apart - and in the ensuing fire, which also destroyed 28,000 buildings. Around a quarter of a million people (out of a population of 400,000) were left homeless. The first tremor, which lasted about 45 seconds, was a sharp jolt. The second tremor, which came a few seconds later, was stronger and lasted 45 to 60 seconds. While there was no way to monitor earthquakes at the time, current estimates put it at 7.8 - 8.3 on the Richter scale. Damage was estimated at $500,000 - almost 13 million dollars today. Over 80% of the City was destroyed. To this day, it was the greatest loss of life in a natural disaster in California history.

Eyewitness accounts

Max Fast "When the fire caught the Windsor Hotel at Fifth and Market Streets there were three men on the roof, and it was impossible to get them down. Rather than see the crazed men fall in with the roof and be roasted alive the military officer directed his men to shoot them, which they did in the presence of 5,000 people."

Adolphus Busch "The most terrible thing I saw was the futile struggle of a policeman and others to rescue a man who was pinned down in burning wreckage. The helpless man watched it in silence till the fire began burning his feet. Then he screamed and begged to be killed. The policeman took his name and address and shot him through the head."

P. Barrett "Of a sudden we had found ourselves staggering and reeling. It was as if the earth was slipping gently from under our feet. Then came the sickening swaying of the earth that threw us flat upon our faces. We struggled in the street. We could not get on our feet. Then it seemed as though my head were split with the roar that crashed into my ears. Big buildings were crumbling as one might crush a biscuit in one's hand. Ahead of me a great cornice crushed a man as if he were a maggot - a laborer in overalls on his way to the Union Iron Works with a dinner pail on his arm."

G. A. Raymond (Who was asleep at the Palace Hotel)

"I had $600.00 in gold under my pillow. I awoke as I was thrown out of bed. Attempting to walk, the floor shook so that I fell. I grabbed my clothing and rushed down into the office, where dozens were already congregated. Suddenly the lights went out, and everyone rushed for the door.

Outside I witnessed a sight I never want to see again. It was dawn and light. I looked up. The air was filled with falling stones. People around me were crushed to death on all sides. All around the huge buildings were shaking and waving. Every moment there were reports like 100 cannons going off at one time. Then streams of fire would shoot out, and other reports followed.

I asked a man standing next to me what happened. Before he could answer a thousand bricks fell on him and he was killed. A woman threw her arms around my neck. I pushed her away and fled. All around me buildings were rocking and flames shooting. As I ran people on all sides were crying, praying and calling for help. I thought the end of the world had come.

I met a Catholic priest, and he said: 'We must get to the ferry.' He knew the way, and we rushed down Market Street. Men, women and children were crawling from the debris. Hundreds were rushing down the street and every minute people were felled by debris.

At places the streets had cracked and opened. Chasms extended in all directions. I saw a drove of cattle, wild with fright, rushing up Market Street. I crouched beside a swaying building. As they came nearer they disappeared, seeming to drop out into the earth. When the last had gone I went nearer and found they had indeed been precipitated into the earth, a wide fissure having swallowed them. I was crazy with fear and the horrible sights.

How I reached the ferry I cannot say. It was bedlam, pandemonium and hell rolled into one. There must have been 10,000 people trying to get on that boat. Men and women fought like wildcats to push their way aboard. Clothes were torn from the backs of men and women and children indiscriminately. Women fainted, and there was no water at hand with which to revive them. Men lost their reason at those awful moments. One big, strong man, beat his head against one of the iron pillars on the dock, and cried out in a loud voice: 'This fire must be put out! The city must be saved!' It was awful."

Have photos that you'd like to see included? Share your photos or click "next page" below to see another historic disaster - the 1930's Dust Bowl.

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