03 May 2010

Disasters: The San Francisco Earthquake

By Elizabeth Lane

In 1906, San Francisco's fire department was one of the most modern and efficient in the world. At the sound of alarm bells, the superbly-trained firemen could hitch the horses, fire up the steam pump and be on their way to a fire in ninety seconds. They had to be good. In a city built mostly of wood, even a small fire could blaze out of control in no time.

The 58 fire companies were on constant alert to keep the city safe. The man responsible for them all was their legendary chief, Dennis Sullivan. A vigorous man of 53, Sullivan had been at his post for 13 years. His men loved him, and there was nothing about fighting fires he didn't know. He had lobbied the city government for years to get the failing water pipes and cisterns repaired and to build a line to pump water from the bay in case of a big fire. "This town," Sullivan had declared, "is in an earthquake belt. One of these fine mornings we'll get a shake that will put this little water system out, and then we'll have a fire. What will we do then?"

His prediction came true on April 18, 1906 at 5: 12 a.m. The animals sensed it first--dogs barking, horses shifting and whinnying. Then, as a distant rumbling rose to a deafening roar, the quake thundered through the city. The first shock lasted forty seconds, followed by a brief silence and another twenty-five second shock--little more than a minute in all. But to the million Californians who felt it, the quake seemed to last forever. The heaving, cracking earth toppled chimneys and towers, splintered rows of frame houses, twisted steel rails, bridges and pipelines. People and animals were crushed by collapsing buildings and falling brick walls.

Dennis Sullivan and his wife Margaret were asleep in their rooms on the third floor of the Bush Street fire station. The dome of the California Hotel next door toppled onto the roof of the fire station, crushing the building. When Sullivan sprang out of bed to find his wife, who'd been sleeping in the next room, he fell through the floor, all the way to the basement, where he was scalded by the steam boiler. His men dug him out of the rubble and rushed him to a hospital. Mrs. Sullivan survived, but Dennis Sullivan never recovered from his injuries. He would die four days later.

In the silence that followed, survivors poured into the streets, gaping in horror at the damage. The scene that met their dazed eyes looked like the end of the world. But the worst was yet to come. Fueled by broken gas mains, fires began to flare in the city. The firemen rushed to do what they could. But the odds were stacked against them. Water was in short supply, the water mains broken, the cisterns in such poor condition that many of them were empty. And the men had lost their beloved chief.

The wooden buildings burned like tinder. The heroic firemen were driven back as fire swept through the towering office buildings and hotels in the downtown area. The wealthier neighborhoods had suffered little damage from the quake because they were built on solid rock. Now, with water gone, the military commander, General Funston, ordered that many of these homes be dynamited to create firebreaks.

Unfortunately the one man who knew how to use dynamite in fighting fires--Chief Sullivan--was gone. As a result, many buildings were blown up unnecessarily, and some fires were even started by the dynamite. The fires raged for three days. By the time the Saturday evening rain dampened the ashes, 490 blocks, totaling 2831 acres, had been burned and more than 450 lives had been lost. Perhaps the most tragic loss of all was the man who, had he lived, might have been the hero who saved much of the city.

But the spirit of San Francisco was undaunted. Within days, aid was pouring in, and the cleanup and rebuilding had started. The city was on its way to becoming even greater than before.

My April 2009 Harlequin Historical, HIS SUBSTITUTE BRIDE, is set against the backdrop of 1906 San Francisco in the last days before the quake and fire. It's a story of devotion, danger and sacrifice. I hope you'll enjoy it.