San Francisco’s population that spring morning was in the region of 400,000 souls.
It was said that the “Paris of the West” had a bar for each one of them.
The great earthquake that was to change everything was unleashed by a shift in hidden tectonic plates just offshore in the Pacific.
And it was, by any standards, a big one.
Measuring an estimated 8.3 on the Richter Scale, the temblor radiated outwards from a jolt in the plate extending almost three hundred miles up and down the California coastline.
By contrast, the 1989 World Series quake, a 7.1 event, spread itself outwards from a far shorter 25 mile-long shudder in the earth’s crust.
There was no television to record the events of 1906, but there were enough photographers about the place to record the aftermath for the historical record.
What the photos show is a charred city looking not unlike Hiroshima after the bomb.
The streets of 1906 San Francisco were laced underground with gas and water pipes.
The quake itself, which lasted just under a minute, caused more than enough damage. But it was the resulting fires that finished the job.
Those fire were sparked in large measure by ruptured gas pipes. And of course similar breaks in the water pipes rendered them useless for firefighting.
The best that San Franciscans could do as their city burned was to form bucket brigades.
First estimates of the dead placed the figure at about 700. Today, the generally accepted number is 3,000 — most of them perishing in the fires.
There is no precise record, but the 1906 quake remains the greatest in terms of loss of life in U.S. history. It was so strong that the ground shook in Germany.
The 1989 quake also sent shock waves far and wide but San Francisco itself was a far better prepared town than it had been 83 years earlier.
Still, this one, though not the Big One, was nothing to make light of. It hit on October 17, just before the third game of the World Series at Candlestick Park.
It was the biggest temblor since 1906 and was enough to down a section of the Bay Bridge, buckle part of Interstate 280, almost destroy the Embarcadero Freeway along the Waterfront, collapse buildings, start close to thirty fires, most notably in the Marina District, and knock out the city’s power grid for three days.
Casualties in 1989, however, were, mercifully, far less than in 1906. Still, the quake killed 62 in the city and central California, injured almost 4,000 and left over 12,000 homeless.
But in an eerie echo of 1906, bucket brigades were formed in some neighborhoods when broken water mains hampered city firefighters.
Not surprisingly, there were a million Irish stories in the shaken city both the 1906 and 1989 version.
One in ’89 involved a Clare man named Chris who described to the Echo what feats someone can achieve if they feel their life is in danger.
“I was on crutches with a broken leg waiting on the sixth floor of French Hospital to see a doctor,” Chris said at the time.
“I swear to God the walls were shaking two feet each way. There was panic in the corridor. I didn’t wait to get examined. I rushed down six flights of stairs, crutches and all.”
Joe O’Neill, who covers San Francisco for the Irish Echo, remembers walls that didn’t shake. But what was comforting close by was not reflected outside on the street.
“I was in a bar in the Sunset District where I was going to watch the baseball,” said O’Neill. “I was looking across the street where there was a realty office with a big front window. All of a sudden the window was wobbling like it was water. There was a car parked outside and it was rocking like it was bobbing on the ocean,” O’Neill remembered.
Fire and water was the core of the post-quake story in 1906.
As much as the quake rocked the city’s foundations it was the days of raging fires afterwards that caused most of the damage.
The 1906 city and its people are described in detail in Dennis Smith’s recent book “San Francisco Is Burning.”
At one point in his critically acclaimed account, Smith outlines the experience of Bridget Conroy, one of the many Irish immigrants living in San Francisco on the fateful morning of April 18.
History being like it is, the city’s response to any repeat of the great quake is today in the hands of a woman who share’s Bridget’s last name. Not just that, she is Bridget’s great granddaughter.
Annemarie Conroy heads the San Francisco Office of Emergency Services. Bridget Conroy had her own children to worry about. Annemarie Conroy will be concerned with every family in the city should another disaster strike.
Back in 1906, the city’s fire chief was an Irish American.
There’s a scene in Smith’s book is which Boston-born Dennis Sullivan is in his horse-drawn buggy “clanging its way down Bush Street.” Sullivan was ringing the buggy’s bell while his driver was urging on the lone horse.
Sullivan would personally respond to a fire if it was serious enough. This one was presumably up to his standard.
Sullivan had repeatedly warned that the city’s water system could not tackle a major disaster. It was just a few hours before the earth unleashed one. The great Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso, had finished his evening concert. The city was bedding down. Chief Sullivan’s idea of a serious fire was about to be redefined.
San Francisco’s present day fire chief is also Irish-American. Joanne Hayes-White, daughter of Irish immigrants, gets around town a little faster than Sullivan did, but her work will be no less cut out should the earth shudder like it did in 1906, or indeed 1989.
San Francisco is this week building up to a sober commemoration of 1906 but using the anniversary as an opportunity to bolster its state of readiness. Particular focus is being placed on the need for citizens to be able to survive independently for up to three days after a major quake.
O’Neill, veteran of ’89 that he is, is well stocked and has a tent that will serve as a backyard home if need be.
Una Fannon, the acting Irish Consul General in San Francisco is also ready for any eventuality that directly affects Irish citizens living in the city and its quake-prone environs.
“We have a comprehensive emergency plan designed to help Irish citizens should there be any kind of disaster,” Fannon told the Echo.
Though she has been posted in San Francisco for a couple of years, Fannon said she has never noticed a tremor.
“People have said did I feel one the night before but I’ve said no,” she said.
On the night of, or more accurately, the early morning of the 100th anniversary of the great 1906 earthquake, Fannon will join many others at a pre-dawn memorial event in the downtown district.
“I’ll there,” said Fannon.
Dennis Smith will also be in San Francisco on the 18th.
“I’ll be there,” he said.
Smith will be speaking at the city’s public library about a day when San Francisco fell — but only to rise again.