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San Franciscans Mark 100th Anniversary of Quake That Destroyed City


April 18, San Franciscans will remember one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, the Great Earthquake of 1906. Local officials say it is a time for commemoration, and preparation.

Thousands will gather in the city center just after 5:00 am on Tuesday, April 18, to remember victims of the Great Earthquake. Organizers say they will also celebrate the heroism of the survivors.

One hundred years ago, the first tremors struck at 5:12 in the morning, and the region shook violently for one minute.

A center of culture and commerce, San Francisco was then known as the Paris of the West. Just hours earlier, Italian tenor Enrico Caruso had appeared in the opera Carmen at the city's opera house.

The singer later recalled trembling with fear as he looked out of the window of his room at the Palace Hotel. He saw buildings topple and masonry fall, and heard the screams of men, women and children.

Historian Eileen Keremitsis is a volunteer guide who recounts the tragic story for visitors. The quake was massive, at magnitude 7.8 and was centered just off the coast close to the city. The shaking damaged or destroyed thousands of buildings over a wide area, but Keremitsis says most of the devastation was caused by fires that burned uncontrolled for three days.

"They burn, and they burn, and they burn," said Eileen Keremitsis. "The fires are not finally out until Saturday."

The commanding general at the nearby Presidio army base sent troops to help police maintain order. The mayor gave orders to shoot looters on sight.

The earthquake and fires claimed at least 3,000 lives, and left more than 200,000 homeless.

The recovery operation began almost immediately. The army provided tents, and local officials commissioned huts to house the homeless. Several are on display at the old Presidio army base, which is now a national park.

Park Ranger Will Elder points out two tiny shacks, still painted in their original olive-green color.

"You can look into one of them here," said Will Elder. "There were originally about 5,600 of these built in the city parks, and there were about 16,000 people that lived in them."

Today, visitors to San Francisco's Legion of Honor museum can get a glimpse of San Francisco in the days after the earthquake in a photographic display that juxtaposes pictures from the disaster with images from the city 100 years later.

Curator Karin Breuer says the spirit of San Francisco shines through the photographs, some taken as the fires were still smoldering. Several show evacuees in makeshift camps, and she says they seemed remarkably cheerful.

"There is no evidence in any of the photos of people who look to be unassisted, unaided or uninvolved in their recovery," said Karin Breuer. "In fact, many of the photos show people standing in lines, waiting. Children are playing outside of tents in tent camps."

The camps for evacuees were closed by 1907, and historian Randolph Delehanty says the city was rebuilt quickly.

"Essentially, the downtown was back by 1909," said Randolph Delehanty. "That is all the skyscrapers, all the banks, the department stores, the hotels, the core, the area around what is now our skyscraper district and Union Square. There was a three-year incredible building boom."

Earthquakes are caused by a complex network of fault lines that lie beneath the earth's surface. As pressure builds on the fault lines, the ground shifts to relieve it. The resulting motion can be violent.

The 1906 quake was caused by a rupture along the San Andreas Fault that occurred beneath the ocean floor just west of the city. Other major fault lines crisscross the area, and scientist David Schwartz says the next big quake could well occur on the Hayward fault, east of San Francisco. He stands astride a crack that marks the fault line.

"We are in the city of Hayward, which the Hayward fault has been named for," said David Schwartz. "And if you look around, you might see something on the ground. You might see some cracks."

The cracks extend through a nearby building, which could well be torn apart when the next quake comes. Major earthquakes occur on this fault line approximately every 150 years. It has been 138 years since the last one.

There are cyclical patterns to earthquakes, but scientists say the patterns are variable and that quakes cannot be forecast with any precision. Ralph Archuleta is deputy director of the Southern California Earthquake Center. Cities can evacuate if a hurricane is approaching, but he says earthquakes give no warning.

"The problem is that we do not have any direct evidence that earthquakes are predictable," said Ralph Archuleta.

San Francisco officials say preparedness is the key to surviving the next big one.

Eileen Keremitsis believes she is ready. Like thousands of residents, she has taken an earthquake safety course from the fire department, and has stockpiles of food and water. She says she does not let the risk interfere with day-to-day living, however.

"Earthquakes can happen any old time," she said. "So after a while, if you pay too much attention to it, then you are just overwhelmed. And so most of us, I think, take a deep breath and go on with our lives."

Local officials hope to use this anniversary to heighten public awareness of the ongoing risk from earthquakes. They say it is only a matter of time before the next big one strikes.

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