Category: Archive

When catastrophe strikes

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

And only the former mayor and future U.S. senator, James Duval Phelan, had the moral authority to lead relief efforts the last time an American city was destroyed and to initiate an investigation into its corruption.
Smith himself feels “privileged and blessed by God” to have written “Report from Ground Zero,” but he believes he was the right person for that job.
His new work “San Francisco is Burning,” about the earthquake and fire 99 years ago, reaches the bookstores in the next few days. But when interviewed, he won’t mention New Orleans or Brown or FEMA or George W. Bush unprompted, uneasy about publicizing his book against the backdrop of a human tragedy in 2005.
When asked, however, he’ll point to the parallels. “In New Orleans the firefighters stayed. In San Francisco, the firefighters stayed,” he said.
In the latter case, half of the professional firemen lost their own homes, but they kept working on the frontline for four days.
So while the news media may say that the 1906 catastrophe isn’t relevant because it was a “simpler” world then, some of the basic moral and organizational issues are the same, in Smith’s view.
For one, there’s a need for more leaders who understand the mission and culture of the emergency services.
“Michael Brown is a good person; has a great reputation,” the author said. “I’m sure there are many people who love him, but he made very many wrong decisions, and when you make wrong decisions in an emergency — in San Francisco as now — you will see the consequences.”
He continued: “You avoid those consequences by putting the right person in there to begin with.
“Ray Kelly is a person who has spent his whole life in emergencies; he knows this business as well as anybody. [He] came up through every rank of the police department and he worked hard for it and he was smart and went to school after school to better himself.
“These are the kinds of leaders that I want to be responsible for my safety,” he said. “In Washington, they pick leaders they owe political debts to.
“And to me that is sinful, and it’s come home to roost, that policy,” he said.
Smith added: “The [1906] story had to do with good men making bad decisions. And in that situation, people were killed and suffered and the city burned.
There are also outright villains and heroes, too, in “San Francisco is Burning.”
Smith highlights an obscure naval lieutenant commander, Frederick Freeman, who saved the city’s wharves and railroad sheds, the “city’s lifeblood.” Had they burned, it would have added 10 years to the rebuilding process.
And, while there have been 50 books about San Francisco in 1906, none, said Smith, had ever investigated the inner workings of the San Francisco Fire Department. He delved deeply into family history and city folklore, and studied closely departmental records and memorabilia.
“I had conversations with people whose grandfathers fought the fire as firefighters. No one had ever taken the time to do that,” he said.
A central character is the city itself, which has always been more liberal and also more interesting than the American mainstream. “San Francisco is about half the size of Indianapolis, yet it has a reputation 10 times greater than Indianapolis,” he said.
The financial city of the West was a “bawdy city,” Smith said, and has both a history of gaiety and history of strife.
It was always a labor city and an Irish city, he said, not least because it’s a seaport.
But the Irish could be found also amongst the gold miners who flocked to California in the 19th century. Most prominent, though, of all Irish San Franciscans, were the “Silver Kings” – James C. Flood, William S. O’Brien, James Gordon Fair and John W. Mackey — who made their fortunes in mining in the Nevada hills.
“They could buy and sell all those railroad guys,” Smith said.
They had accents, however, and never could become part of the city’s social elite, “but they built the biggest and most beautiful houses.”
Cork-born James Phelan, understanding the limited potential of gold-mining, made his fortune supplying the miners. He then started the First National Gold Bank of San Francisco in 1870 and was its first president.
Smith writes: “His son was to succeed him as president and was just the kind of Irishman who naturally endeared himself to everyone he met. Had it not been for his vehement and nativist anti-Japanese sentiments, he might have gone on to be the most beloved politician in the state’s history and despite them is still known as San Francisco’s first honest mayor.”
Even that blot on his reputation might be seen in the context a growing Japanese imperialist militarism, which eventually attacked the U.S. and is still the greatest enemy this nation has ever faced, Smith said. Not that the author is an unquestioning patriot. Just a few years before Japan defeated Czarist Russia, America’s expansion included its involvement in the Philippines, resulting in a horrific civilian death toll there, which he described as “unconscionable.”
In any case, James D. Phelan, “San Francisco’s most idealistic citizen,” Smith said, and a man of considerable intellect, not only led the relief committees, but campaigned for an investigation into the city’s corruption.
Dennis Smith didn’t have a millionaire father but he has served on a quite a few committees and still does. He grew up on in a tenement apartment on 56th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues, in Manhattan
His 2000 book “A Song for Mary” about his childhood, youth and early adulthood is above all a tribute to his mother who kept her Irish Catholic family together through difficult times.
“My life has never changed and that comes from having a mother who was very disciplined in her life’s habits,” Smith said.
In Mary Hogan Smith’s view “not having a job was no excuse for not looking for one.
“You were up and out at 7:30 in the morning,” he recalled.
He worked in various jobs before joining the Fire Department of New York in 1963, serving for 18 years.
“It was a life’s dream come true,” he said.
Smith, who is divorced and has five adult children, started mortgage and credit card companies, founded Firehouse Magazine and had time also to get two college degrees. He was founding chairman, too, of the New York Academy of Art.
“I always keep busy,” said the author, whose latest initiative is First Responders Financial Company.
Smith, now the author of 14 books, first won broad acclaim with “Report from Engine Co. 82.”
But “Report from Ground Zero,” described in the New Yorker as a “tremendously powerful chronicle of Sept. 11,” undoubtedly marks the pinnacle of his career to date.
“I truly felt I was most capable person to write that book,” the author said, adding that he believes it will stand the test of time.
Nonetheless, Smith himself is “not interested in being a celebrity. I just want to be known as a hardworking guy.”

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