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Day 34 – SF earthquake


Submitted by Karl Breckenridge

It was just a bit after 4 ayem the Tuesday morning of April 18, 2006 – 14 years ago today. We were standing on the corner of Buchanan and Chestnut Streets in San Francisco’s Marina District, looking up Chestnut Street in the dark for something that might be the 30-Stockton bus. The Muni was running buses on their commute-hour schedule all that night.

A hundred years ago at 5:12 a.m. the earth would shake to the beat of a 7.9 temblor on the Richter Scale, and that corner and most of the Marina – filled from the tidelands 50 years before by Chinese laborers, would sink back into the sea, and what buildings – most frame apartments, then and now –  remained above the water line, would burn.

A Toyota came out of nowhere, with two attractive ladies in it. The passenger said, “Are you two going to the earthquake thing downtown? Hop in!”

A small part of me wanted to say “No – we’re standing on this corner in the dark, dressed like a couple of Kentucky Fried Idiots, waiting for the 30 because we don’t want to be late for the Giants baseball game tonight.” But I didn’t. We got into the back seat of the Toyota and made a friendship – in the 20 minutes it took to get downtown – that thus far has lasted forever.

A crowd of perhaps 25,000 souls had already arrived on Market Street in the vicinity of Lotta’s Fountain – the 15-foot high landmark near Geary Street that survived the conflagration following the earthquake.

Karl, portraying Dennis Sullivan, and companion,
portraying Mrs. Funston, in front of Lotta’s Fountain.
Image: Karl Breckenridge

Market Street is eight or ten vehicle- and streetcar-lanes wide at that intersection – plenty for the celebrants already there – some of whom just stayed downtown after the bars closed at two o’clock – and the others who were steadily arriving by bus, streetcar and shank’s Mare from the outlying neighborhoods. In another hour the crowd was estimated to be 45,000 people.

Most wore costumes evocative of 1906, and had assumed a persona of someone alive at that time. I was clad in Levis, my faithful black derby and a red cavalry blouse, and was portraying Dennis Sullivan, the SF Fire Chief. I was accompanied by a fine San Francisco lady who was enroute to a tea with Mrs. Funston at her Presidio home, where her husband, Army General Frederick Funston was the commander of the Presidio. This fine San Francisco lady’s costume was an amalgamation of trips to the thrift store and Home Depot.

But – it did the job – the fine lady was interviewed by most of the TV stations in the early morning hours, staying in character, and heard all day following and into our dinner that evening of the viewers’ sorrow that she was unable to make the tea.

Oh, brother…

In 2006 there remained living 14 people who were alive at the time the earthquake occurred, plus one younger lady who was born exactly nine months following the earthquake.  Her parents had sought shelter in a tent in Golden Gate Park the night of the earthquake, and, well….nine months later she arrived in The City.  The other survivors, hearing of this, welcomed her into their exclusive circle, where she was feted alongside them for many, many years.

All have passed away in 2020… (And parenthetically, 300,000 people were without homes that night…)

It was a firemen’s show – departments from  all over California sent classic fire apparatus that can still put out a hell of a lot of water, which they did on Pier 3, knocking down cones with their spray. The last couple cones away from the Embarcadero remained; none of the antique engines could quite reach it with their pressure.

I – and a few others – saw what was going to happen next, and took cover, thus remaining the only dry observers by the Ferry Building. The San Francisco Fire Department’s fireboat – the Phoenix – emitted just a small puff of black smoke, and its nozzle, on a mast 40 feet above the deck, turned toward the last couple cones, that no unit ashore could knock down.

The fireboat opened fire on the cones, so to speak; the immense pressure from its inch-and-a-quarter brass nozzle knocked down the cones, and then the fun began, with guys on the fireboat giving their buddies – and everybody else on the Embarcadero – a salt-water bath. All in good fun…

San Francisco Fire Truck. Image: Karl Breckenridge

By-the-by, the vessel Phoenix is named not after the Arizona city, but for the mythical bird that SF uses as its symbol; the city and the bird both rising triumphantly from the ashes…

American LaFrance – who had been selling apparatus to the City of San Francisco for over a hundred years – gave the department a little present to demonstrate their gratitude for the long relationship. The City had ordered 16 new fire engines, which were delivered that morning. Unbeknownst to the City, ALF had painted all 16 engines in a retro, darker red color, which had not been seen on an SFFD truck since the 1940s. And with a heavy gold pin-striping that’s almost invisible by day, but absolutely breathtaking in the dark under streetlights or a vehicle’s headlights. These “Centennial” engines still ply the Streets of San Francisco.

It was quite a day indeed in The City. Market Street was quiet by noon, the crowds departed. I – and about another hundred Dennis T. Sullivans – perished that day, crushed when his residence collapsed into a fire-horse stable next to it. My Fair Lady never got to the Presidio to have tea with Mrs. Funston, but barkeep Eric behind Izzy’s restaurant’s plank, bought her a Lemon Drop Martini that night. And we walked  home – tired but happy – along Lombard Street to Buchanan, which a hundred years  before would be awash with salt water and still aflame.

That’s how we spent our April 18 – let’s all be safe on this one, huh?

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Karl Breckenridge

Karl Breckenridge was slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Now that it’s over he’s back to his usual antics, drinking coffee with the boys at the Bear and, well, we’re not sure what else. But he loved sharing his daily musings with you, so he’s back, albeit a little less often, to keep on sharing. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally. 

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