By Allen Matthews
A San Francisco tradition resumed Sunday morning, when a small crowd of politicians, firefighters, police and the public gathered before dawn to mark the 115th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake that brought The City to its knees.
Those gathered noted that the phoenix that emerged then is alive now, bringing a post-COVID renewal.
“We are coming out of this pandemic, and we are coming out stronger than ever,” said Mayor London Breed as she stood in front of Lotta’s Fountain to address the gathering of about 75 people.
At 5:12 a.m – the time the 1906 quake ripped through the San Andreas Fault – sirens from a lone San Francisco fire truck blared at the intersection of Market, Kearny and Geary streets. The fountain, an 1875 gift from actress Lotta Crabtree, was a meeting point for survivors after the cataclysm that shook The City with an estimated 7.9 on the Richter scale. At least 3,000 people died, and great fires caused more damage, leveling huge swaths of San Francisco.
With dawn more than an hour away on Sunday morning, the Downtown scene was eerily calm.
Usually, a dozen or so fire engines flip their sirens at once. Usually, lights come on in the guest rooms at the Palace Hotel seconds later – visitors alarmed by the sudden commotion in the dead of night. Not this year: The Palace remains COVID closed.
As the sirens quieted, Donna Ewald Huggins – dressed as Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a Fire Department patron who died in 1929 – led everyone in singing a mask-muffled rendition of “San Francisco,” from the 1936 film about the disaster.
For decades, crowds have gathered at Lotta’s Fountain to mark the moment that transformed San Francisco. Some at the time thought The City was dead. More cool-headed people realized that a rebirth from the ashes was not only possible but destined. Nine years later, San Francisco hosted the Pan-Pacific Exposition that signaled The City’s rebirth.
The predawn memorial was a small event that picked up steam as the 100th anniversary of the quake approached. The 2006 gathering drew thousands to watch the last survivors arrive in the Police Department’s stately prewar parade convertible. But as the years passed, so did the last of the survivors. And last year’s ironclad salute to the past was called off because of COVID.
“This is the first time a gathering of this nature has happened in more than a year,” Breed said. “Except for protests.”
But history isn’t the only reason for the commemoration. California is overdue for another big quake, and scientists and government officials warn that preparation and having a plan for the first 72 hours after any disaster are essential for survival.
“It’s a good time to start to remind people,” Breed said, stressing that first responders will have their hands full helping the injured. Everyone should have enough food, water and other supplies for at least three days.
“It’s time to revisit those emergency packs to see what’s expired.” she said,
After the ceremony, participants drove to Church and 20th streets to celebrate a fire hydrant that continued to pump water that day despite water main breaks throughout The City. The original plug, which is credited with saving the Mission District, gets a fresh coat of gold paint each year on the anniversary.