Disturbing but Fascinating Account of What Really Happened During and After the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake
By Jeff Salter
“No more dynamite!” I felt like screaming, as I read this book. “You’ve already made things horribly worse!”
That was among my visceral reactions to Dennis Smith’s fascinating account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. His book: San Francisco Is Burning — the Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fires.
First, I guess it’s important to indicate my sparse general knowledge – or lack of it – about that horrible event. My previous understanding – based mostly on clips of a Clark Gable movie and a few mentions in history books or articles – was that the massive quake caused most of the damage, notably creating the fires (which exponentially multiplied the destruction).
But here’s some of what we learn in Smith’s exhaustively detailed account:
* most of the city’s buildings were made of wood and were set on soil (or “fill”) which was inferior, unstable, and unsuitable as “foundation”. So the quake smashed those structures like Godzilla tromping on the soundstage representing Tokyo.
* the city (and surrounding area) was mostly run by dishonest political hacks who rather openly fed on graft and corruption. Many viewed their positions as multiple ways to line their own pockets… rather than investing in the city and trying to improve things.
* the fire chief had tried for many years to secure adequate water supplies – not only for his department’s potential use, but for the city’s population generally. But those efforts were ignored because the politicians wanted to use the water crisis for their own financial advantage instead of the public’s good.
* The fire chief – only person in the area with the right training, insight, leadership, and public persona to take control and actually defeat the fires – was horribly injured during the first moments of the quake. He was incapacitated and unable to even speak over the next couple of days… and died before the last fires were put out. Neither of his assistant chiefs had the training, leadership, or public clout to assume control and therefore the fire department was relegated to a support role (more on this in a moment).
* The head politicians knew nothing of crisis management and even less about fighting fires. Most had only been in politics because of its access to power and illegal financial gain.
* into this gap stepped a respected army general, who – though he was proven on the battlefield – knew nothing about fire control and even less about handing civil disasters. His ILLEGAL response was to declare martial law, arm his own men and a few other military units, and SHOOT any citizen who disobeyed nebulous orders.
* it was this general who authorized and insisted on the incredible step of blowing up city block after city block of buildings in the paths of the multiple fires — presumably to set up fire “breaks”… but actually accomplishing the opposite. Yeah, nearly every time they blew up buildings or blocks, the fire only spread farther and faster.
* they didn’t even have the right type of explosives for the type of controlled blasts which COULD POSSIBLY HAVE helped… so they used black power and just about anything else that would blow up.
* the guy put in charge of setting off most of these charges… was not experienced in this type of explosion and possibly not even sober (this varies in the retelling) for much of the time.
* in many cases, after a building had been SAVED by the heroic efforts of the fire teams and civilians, and (in some cases) the military who (against orders) put down their rifles and picked up shovels — the general in charge decided to blow up that building anyway! And the fire spread even more.
* heroic and intelligent responses by certain Naval units (operating out of the bay initially, but later even going block to block) had very good results… many of which were later mitigated by the actions of the army general. And, to rub salt in their wounds, the general’s after-action reports pointedly disregarded the sacrificial work of those Navy guys.
* the author introduces us to many civilians caught up in the disaster. We come to know them and we hope for their survival. We share the joy of those who prevailed… and we share the grief over those who didn’t.
* under the illegal martial law, soldiers were ordered to evict (at bayonet point) residents of their own homes and workers at their own businesses. If the citizens did not comply, they could be shot. Many were. In a few isolated cases, people remained “illegally” and successfully saved their structures from the fire. Those cases illustrate what could have happened if citizens had been given a choice.
* though the “official” after action reports refer to a handful of deaths from the soldiers’ actions, the author gives a figure he considers conservative: at least 500 citizens were shot dead on sight, on the presumption that their presence in an area categorized as looters. In fact, many were the owners or residents of the buildings they were near.
* don’t get me started about the insurance companies which simply walked away from this disaster without paying a single claim!
I could go on. I guess you can see how my blood boiled over what I read in Smith’s account. And, it goes without saying that if this author can draw me into this 111 year old disaster to this extent, he’s a powerful writer!
Let me end this by summarizing (with the luxury of hindsight and without the pressure of being in the middle of that disaster) how this event COULD HAVE turned out instead.
Damage from the quake itself would have been quite rebuildable … AND destruction from the several (isolated) fires would have likely been containable
* the trained and capable fire chief had NOT been removed from the equation in those first moments
* the politicians had heeded the numerous prior warnings about deficient water supply and actually done something to correct it
* the city had honest and capable managers with some actual leadership ability
* the general had used his troops to help with disaster relief (fighting fires, setting EFFECTIVE fire breaks, rescuing injured citizens, hauling hoses and water, etc.) instead of their ill-advised assignment as armed “guards”.
* the citizens had been allowed to remain on their property and fight the fire sparks before they spread
* the general had NOT chosen to blast entire sections of the city to smithereens
I could go on. Of course, in 1906, most large cities did not have evacuation routes, disaster response teams, emergency plans for first responders, etc. And, in fact, many lessons from this event COULD have been helpful in developing some of those plans for future disasters. However, the powers-that-be chose instead to quash much of the research and statistics of this event because it (rightly) portrayed them in a bad light.
Ever read a book that makes you want to scream, “don’t blow up that city block! It will just make things worse!”
[JLS # 358]