I spent Friday and Saturday in San Francisco, reporting a story about the 100th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire that almost wiped this city off the map. It's a frightening, haunting chapter in American history, and it really hits home now because of the parallels to Hurricane Katrina and what happened in New Orleans.
As historian Philip Fradkin wrote last year, "Both cities had been forewarned of disaster...Both cities and their populations ignored the warnings and were, as a result, woefully unprepared. They were, in other words, ripe for major catastrophes."
For this story, we looked at disastrous mistakes made by San Francisco leaders that almost destroyed the city after the 1906 quake, such as Mayor Eugene Schmitz's order to thousands of police and federal troops authorizing them to "KILL any and all persons found engaged in looting" and the city's decision to fight the spreading fire with dynamite, which for three days succeeded only in starting more fires.
The city initially said 478 people had died. But historians now believe 3,000 to 5,000 died in the earthquake and the fires that followed.
The story that haunts me most is what happened to the city's visionary and talented fire chief, Dennis Sullivan. Jolted awake by the quake, he had the presence of mind to wrap his wife in a mattress. But falling debris from a nearby building crashed through his roof, hurling Sullivan and his wife four stories downward into a sea of wreckage. Badly burned, he fell into a coma and died four days later.
As author James Dalessandro told us, "The one man who could have made a difference was lost." Sullivan's wife, though, survived -- the mattress saved her life.
The other story that sticks with me is the heroism of a Navy lieutenant, a man named Frederick Freeman. Acting without orders and without supervision, he took it upon himself to muster his men and fight the fire at the water's edge. It is now believed he saved the city's waterfront.
Had the waterfront been lost, the death toll would have skyrocketed because it was the main avenue of evacuation and the main route for incoming supplies. In a city ruled by panic, chaos, lawlessness and drunkenness, Freeman inspired his men to work for 70 straight hours.
"He was not a man who would wait for instructions before taking action in an emergency," wrote one of the midshipmen under Freeman's command. "He was a born leader of men, a skipper whose men would go to Hell and back for him. I can hear him now, 'Come on men, sock it to 'em!' and they did."
I can't imagine the terror in San Francisco a hundred years ago. That earthquake lasted 40 or 50 seconds. The fires burned for three days. But it must have felt like an eternity.