1906 quake anniversary marked in predawn S.F. ceremony

Speakers compared San Francisco’s COVID response to the rebuilding after the 1906 disaster.

A bit of San Francisco magic happens before dawn every April 18 as a crowd gathers at Lotta’s Fountain to mark the anniversary of the earthquake and fires that leveled The City in 1906.

Monday’s ceremony carried more meaning, with a nod toward pandemic recovery, as speakers compared San Francisco’s COVID response to the rebuilding after the 1906 disaster.

More than 100 people attended, with police and firefighters representing a healthy portion of those assembled at the intersection of Market, Kearny and Geary streets.

At 93, Joe McCaughey was likely the oldest person. The Merced resident has a unique tie to that day in 1906 — his great-uncle was Eugene Schmitz, the mayor of San Francisco.

Although his famous ancestor died before McCaughey was born, he said family members described the fierce shaking. “We had lots of stories,” he said.

Many in the predawn crowd were veterans of the ceremony.

“I’ve been here for 48 years,” said Donna Ewald Huggins, dressed as Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a Fire Department patron who died in 1929, as she led the gathering in a sing-along of “San Francisco” from the 1936 film about the disaster.

“I’m so proud and grateful to represent such a strong and resilient city,” said Mayor London Breed, dressed in vintage garb and looking like an image from that morning so long ago. Breed compared The City’s pandemic response to its recovery from the earthquake.

“When we are down, we are not out,” she said.

At 5:12 a.m. — the moment the 1906 quake tore up the San Andreas Fault — Fire Department sirens sounded along Market Street. The fountain, a 1875 gift from actress Lotta Crabtree, was a meeting pointing for survivors after the cataclysm that shook The City with an estimated magnitude of 7.9. At least 3,000 people died, and fires caused more damage, leveling huge swaths of San Francisco.

For decades, crowds have gathered at Lotta’s Fountain to mark the moment that transformed San Francisco. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, elected officials and first responders have used the event to remind residents to prepare for future disasters.

As usual, some people simply stumbled upon the gathering. “It’s my first time,” said a man who declined to give his name. “Gotta get to work.”

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