Monday, April 17, 2006
Quake's terror reverberates still
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.
Posted By Peter Viles, CNN Correspondent: 4:48 PM ET
  15 Comments
It reminds me of Katrina -- the suffering and pain of devistation. The still photos are haunting images. You can only imagine what it would have been like to have seen it live on CNN. The story of San Francisco should give us hope for the Gulf Coast. If San Francisco can rebuild anything is possible.
Posted By Anonymous Cheryl Welch, Raleigh NC : 5:25 PM ET
Hey Peter, Great story...but one thing is missing, possibly....Where are all the accounts of the people in San Francisco waiting for the federal government to come bail them out? Why weren't people waiting around in Seattle or Portland for the Feds to rebuild thier cityh for them, and give them everything for free for 6 months? Or did people pick themselves up by their own bootstraps and move on? Maybe today's society can gain some insight into reality from the victims of this disaster. That it is our individual responsibility to live a life, to move on for our own good and become productive members of society and not just belly-ache about not getting everything for free.
Posted By Anonymous Brant, Madison, Wisconsin : 5:44 PM ET
Earthquakes, as are all natural catastrophes, are incredibly awful. I remember the huge Mexico City earthquake and watching it on Mexican TV. I'll never forget the rubble of houses with people buried underneath.

Natural disasters, though, do seem to bring out the best in people. It takes leadership amongst the affected. But it also takes the help and compassion of the whole world.

God save us from a disaster such as San Francisco. The awful thing is that such a disaster is predicted in the future.
Posted By Anonymous Ana Perez, Monterrey, Mexico : 6:30 PM ET
Indeed it is a day of remembrance for the city of San Francisco. Earthquakes are another of nature's little tricks in its bag of explosives.

For those who draw parrellels between San Francisco and New Orleans, i suggest another parrellel, or better said, a new suggestion. Both cities were warned, both cities ignored the warnings, and both cities run the risk of being hit again. the question i ask is why?
Posted By Anonymous Ryan, Otterburne, Manitoba : 6:33 PM ET
The eerie thing is if you look at the pictures of 1906 and compare them to present day they are very similar. Having said that, the city is not prepared for another major earthquake which could happen at any time.
Posted By Anonymous Kelly, San Francisco : 6:48 PM ET
Ryan,
I agree with you completely, except that it isn't the 'city' that we should focus on, it is the individuals. The people of the cities were warned, for decades, yet said 'It won't happen to us'. And when it did they cried foul, and said it was our governments's fault.
Posted By Anonymous Brant, Madison, Wisconsin : 7:51 PM ET
Thank you for doing a piece on San Francisco. The city was able to survive through the love of the people that lived there and who cared enough to rebuild and revive this beautiful city.
Posted By Anonymous Angelina, San Francisco, CA : 7:51 PM ET
I am a native San Franciscan, whose due date was April 18th, 1958. After 10 days wait for her 4th daughter, my mother sent her mother home and later called me "stubborn from the beginning, not willing to come when you were supposed to." The only
quake I've so far felt too well was
the Oct. 17th, 1989, Loma Prieta one.
Considering how lengthy the 15 seconds
of that shake felt, I can't fathom
what terror must have befell thousands
for 45 seconds on 4/18/06 early morning. My brother-in-law eluded
death by a quick crossing of the Bay Bridge (he felt the span break behind
him only as a thump). My sister & bro-
ther-in-law were unexpectedly detained in San Francisco,and therefore delayed from their daily crossing over what
became the doomed Cypress highway. My
little son, then 2&1/2 years old, had
the most memorable observation: "All
gone lights, No Big Bird". Think "extra water, food, clothes, flashlights" and then go buy them, everyone!
Posted By Anonymous Adrian King, San Francisco, CA : 2:08 AM ET
When will we stop beleiving "It can't happen to me"?
Posted By Anonymous Preston Bauman Melbourne Florida : 9:06 AM ET
Something else that is frightening for people east of the Rockies is the New Madrid fault which I dont think alot of people are aware of. It covers portions of Arkansas,Missouri and runs into the area around Memphis. There were massive earthquakes in this area in December of 1811 and the aftershocks went on for several months. It is estimated one of the earthquakes was a 7.8 on the richter scale. No one in these areas builds to protect against earthquakes. Imagine the total devastation if one were to hit now. Its been almost 200 years since that happened, who knows when another could hit?
Posted By Anonymous Lisa Jacksonville FL : 9:37 AM ET
In response to Brant in Wisconsin:

When disaster hits your area, your home and all the homes around you are leveled like so must dust, the insurance you pay for refuses to cough up the dough, and the government tells you they're going to help with your tax money then doesn't, and leaves you sitting on a rooftop to die, maybe then you can make rude comments about the people in New Orleans.

God Bless the people in San Francisco who lost their lives 100 years ago. God Bless the people who lost their lives a year ago in New Orleans.

But most of all, God Bless the people who have no compassion at all for those who have nothing anymore.
Posted By Anonymous Melinda Pocono, Pennsylvania : 10:25 AM ET
I would be interested in what it took and how long it took to re-build the city itself. How it was accomplished?

Can we find any parallels that might provide guidance in this horrible aftermath that I fear has shaken our confidence in government, but even worse, in ourselves to cope, be productive and pull through.
Posted By Anonymous Janice Scanlan, Sugar Land, TX : 10:36 AM ET
We hear so much about New Orleans and the potential for another major hurricane and subsequent flood. San Francisco's chances at another devastating earthquake that could result in thousands of deaths. But does anyone consider the alarming reality of a tsunami slamming into the east coast? For those of you who are uninformed, there are several volcanos in the Atlantic that are filling with water. When they break apart, it will cause a tidal wave that will pummel New York, Boston, D.C., etc., not to mention Rhode Island would no longer exist. The economic impact from the shutdown of ports in NYC and New Jersey alone should scare the crap out of everyone. Why does this go ignored?
Posted By Anonymous Dave, Providence RI : 12:39 PM ET
Disasters happen. It's an unfortunate fact of life. Intentionally building in a flood plain or on a fault line is inviting trouble. Anyone who would put themselves in harm's way is gambling with their life and livelihood. Perhaps such reckless behavior should translate to strict exclusions in their insurance coverage. Why do the rest of us have to pay increased premiums because people don't learn from the past?

And when disaster strikes, as it inevitably does, maybe victims of flood, hurricane, tornado, et al, should follow the example of folks in North Dakota who live through blizzard conditions: they prepare for the worst, and help each other to recover when it finally happens. They don't beg for help while they sit on the stool of do-nothing and whine.

Some people do take responsibility and actively work to improve their situation. Others expect to be bailed out.
Posted By Anonymous Deb, Richmond VA : 4:07 PM ET
In response to Melinda Pocono, Pennsylvania

The difference between New Orlean and San Francisco is that the people in New Orleans KNEW the hurricane was coming and chose to sit there and ride it out. It's typical of people to sit around and wait for the government to bail them out. Most of them were poor people from the start and were used to the government taking care of them in the first place. I'm sure the people in San Francisco had their homes reduced to nothing from the earthquake, if not from the fires. There probably was no such thing as homeowners insurance and I'm sure their was no government funding to help the quake survivors rebuild. But, they did what they were taught to do. They moved on, rebuilt, help each other out. They took care of their own because they had to. People nowadays are so used to government handouts that they expect it every time something happens.

As far as the government leaving people on their roofs to die that is so wrong. Again, those people KNEW it was coming. They had the chance to leave or go to an evacuation shelter. They chose NOT to. Then they want someone to risk their life to come and save their selfish ass. They put their children and family at risk by not leaving. THEY CHOSE TO STAY and then they want the government to rescue them. Had it been me and my children, I would have walked. They know they live in a hurricane town. This is nothing new. They need to learn to take care of themselves and be prepared for disaster. Not sit back and wait for the government to take care of them.
Posted By Anonymous Lisa Fairfax PA : 2:51 PM ET
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