Noe Valley Voice April 2006

The Big One--Remembered

By Liz Highleyman

One hundred years ago this month, the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 devastated the city, leaving some 3,000 dead and tens of thousands homeless.

To commemorate the disaster, the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD), San Francisco Historical Society, Noe Valley Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT), and other local groups are planning events ranging from historical exhibits to a ballet premiere to an emergency preparedness drill.

"At the time, it was the greatest catastrophe in the history of the United States," says SFFD Capt. James Lee. "This commemoration will show how the city picked itself up and rebuilt itself."

One of the big events will take place on the outskirts of Noe Valley near Dolores Park. As they do every April 18, residents and SFFD members will gather at 7 a.m. to repaint the golden fire hydrant at Church and 20th streets. After the 1906 quake, this hydrant still had water and is credited with saving Noe Valley and the Mission from the advancing conflagration. San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White will start the painting. Then everyone else will have a chance to join in.

Another early-morning ritual on April 18 is the annual gathering at Lotta's Fountain at 4:30 a.m.--the quake struck at 5:12 a.m.--on Market Street near Third and Kearny. In the days following the disaster, the fountain became an impromptu gathering place for residents seeking news of friends and loved ones. This year's event promises to be bigger than ever, with appearances by celebrities, politicians, and throngs of old and young San Franciscans. Organizers predict the crowd may exceed 20,000.

For event producer Taren Sapienza, the ceremony will remain a somber occasion. "The moment of silence, the laying of the wreath, the fire sirens--they've been doing that ever since I can remember," says Sapienza, whose father was a longtime member of the philanthropic group that started the commemoration in the 1920s. She adds that about 20 survivors (centenarians themselves) are eager to share their stories at this year's ceremony. "They were just young children at the time, but they remember a lot," she says.

Following these two ceremonies, Local 798 of the San Francisco Firefighters' Union will host a parade featuring vintage fire vehicles. It starts at 10 a.m. at City Hall and proceeds down Market Street to the Ferry Building, which survived the 1906 quake intact.

A Flurry of Activities

There will be other events that afternoon and evening, as well as a series of activities and exhibits throughout April and the rest of the year.

The turn of the 19th century witnessed the popularization of photography, and the San Francisco Public Library is showing an exhibition of personal photo albums compiled by city residents and tourists after the quake. On April 11, the Eureka Valley Library will sponsor a lecture about Marie Equi, a lesbian anarchist doctor who helped with the relief effort. The Bernal Heights Library will host an earthquake shack walking tour on April 22 and an earthquake centennial picnic--Edwardian garb encouraged--at Precita Park on April 29. (For these and other library programs, see

Hankering for more? Through May 30, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is showing "A Disaster in Pictures," while the California Historical Society features the photographs and diaries of Jack London and his wife, Charmain Kittredge, who covered the disaster as journalists. The Presidio Trust and National Park Service have re-created a refugee camp in the Presidio, where '06 survivors lived in tents and makeshift "cottages."

The Chinese Historical Society of America hosts a series of events looking at the quake's devastating impact on Chinatown. And the Society of California Pioneers Museum presents "Shake, Bake, and Spin!" an examination of the less savory aspects of the quake's aftermath, including media cover-ups and developer "land grabs."

Artists are also doing their part. On April 5, the Diablo Ballet presents the world premiere of Earthquake! at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The California Historical Society will sponsor a free outdoor concert and sing-along at Yerba Buena Gardens on April 17, featuring selections from Bizet's opera Carmen, which renowned tenor Enrico Caruso performed in San Francisco on the eve of the Great Quake and Fire.

Volunteers Needed at Disaster Drill

Aware that the next Big One could happen anytime, the SFFD and NERT are not wasting the opportunity to urge city residents to be prepared.

"No matter how you look at it, there will be a major event on the San Andreas or Hayward Fault," warns Capt. Lee of the Fire Department. "By being prepared, you're better able to take care of yourself in the first three days after a disaster." (To see a list of tips, go to

NERT will hold its annual citywide disaster drill on April 22 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Marina Middle School. According to Noe Valley NERT coordinator Maxine Fasulis, the Fire Department is going all out to make this year's drill "as real as possible," and volunteers are needed to play "victims." After the drill, you can head over to the Exploratorium to meet rescue dog Jaeger and hear from first responders from the Alameda County Urban Search and Rescue Squad and Bay Area Disaster Medical Assistance ( For more information on NERT, visit sffdnert or call Fasulis at 641-5536.

"Don't wait for a quake to toss you out of bed at five in the morning," she urges. "A few hours of preparation today will make us all safer and better able to ride out an earthquake and its aftermath whenever one might strike--and you know one will!"

Other Centennial Events

April 15-17: SFFD Historical Society 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire Exposition. Features vintage firefighting equipment, historical firefighter muster, fireboat tours, safety fair, and live entertainment. Pier 48, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., free. Plus Firefighters Ball on April 15, 8 p.m., $50 (

April 17: San Francisco Historical Society and Chinese Historical Society of America gala reception and dinner. Palace Hotel, 6 p.m., $500 (

April 18-22: 100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference. Includes Association of Bay Area Governments general assembly on "Managing Risk Through Public Policy in Earthquake Country" on April 20, and an interactive mock disaster exercise on April 21. Moscone Convention Center (

April 8, 15, 22 & 29: Earthquake walking tours, offered by the San Francisco Historical Society. Meet at 10 a.m., Old U.S. Mint, Mission and Fifth streets ( Also, all year long, City Guides offers three new free walking tours focusing on the 1906 disaster (

April 21: Cartography of Ashes, a documentary about the 1906 conflagration (a collaboration between local artist Dolissa Medina and the SFFD) will be projected onto the eight-story SFFD training tower at 19th and Folsom streets. 8 p.m., free.

For more information on these and other events, visit San Francisco Rising ( and the 1906 Earthquake Centennial Alliance (