Tuesday morning at 5 a.m. it was time once again to gather and place a wreath at Lotta's Fountain — at the intersection of Kearny, Geary, and Market streets — for the annual ritual to commemorate the moment the 1906 earthquake struck at 5:12 a.m., 117 years ago.
The early morning gathering included city officials, including London Breed, dressed in period garb from the Edwardian Era.
This was the first big in-person gathering for the earthquake remembrance since 2019's, and it was the first for KTVU reporter James Torrez, who had only covered this as a virtual event the last two years. Torrez buttonholed a dapperly dressed former Mayor Willie Brown for some comment, and Brown was in a chipper mood.
"This was the spot that went away in '06!" Brown said, referring to downtown. "And now it's back more vibrant than ever."
Plenty of people would disagree with that current assessment of downtown, but the commemoration event was, at least, back to its pre-pandemic form, with dozens in attendance.
Gone are the days of these 5 a.m. gatherings when the remaining survivors of the '06 quake — who, at least in recent decades, were children at the time of the quake — would attend, bundled up and usually looking like they'd rather be somewhere else. The last living earthquake survivor, Bill Del Monte, who lived to the ripe old age of 109, passed away in 2016.
Below is a photo from the 100th anniversary gathering in 2006, when they had a gaggle of still-kicking survivors, including Ruth Newman, and Jeanette Scola Trapani.
Trapani, who was only four years old when the quake struck, told family members that she could remember the smell of smoke from the conflagration that overtook much of the city after the earthquake, and she remembered living with her family in a tent in the Presidio.
ABC 7 put together some past interviews with survivors in 2016, and some had stories of the terrifying experience of riding out the quake — said to be a 7.9M on the Richter Scale, lasting almost a full minute.
One survivor, Agnes Singer, compared the sound of the earthquake's arrival to a "wild animal," and another said, "The earthquake came in with the roar of the ocean, it was a tremendous roar."
Another survivor, Bill Bon Barton, lost his entire family in the quake, and was old enough to remember being thrown out of a window from bed.
"I went through the window cot and all," Bon Barton said. "Then I got a broken jaw, slice taken off the nose, this eyebrow was hanging. You can see it sticks up like now. Then I had a broken arm and two broken legs."
An unidentified woman told ABC 7, "My mother was widowed with four children. My father was killed downtown. He was buried [when] the side of a brick building fell."
And a man recalled his mother saying, "Let's get out of here, there's too much stuff coming out of the sky," and he said, "there were a lot of people praying on the street, you know thinking that the end of the world was here."
Today's commemoration was, as is traditional, in two parts. It began at Lotta's Fountain, marking the time at 5:12 a.m. The cast-iron fountain, a gift from well-known actress Lotta Crabtree to the city in 1875, was a significant landmark and used as a meeting point for people separated in the hours and days after the earthquake.
The second part of the event takes place at Dolores Park, at the golden fire hydrant near the corner of 20th and Church streets. It was one of the only operating fire hydrants in the city after many water mains broke in the quake, and it is credited with saving that part of the Mission District from the flames of the fire that followed the quake.
At exactly 5:12 a.m, the same time the 1906 earthquake struck San Francisco, fire sirens blare their audible commemoration of the deadly disaster. pic.twitter.com/ce7OpxvtDe— San Francisco Public Works (@sfpublicworks) April 18, 2023
Big crowd to paint the Golden Fire Hydrant this morning. pic.twitter.com/JuAM91txl6— David Gallagher (@DavidGallagher) April 18, 2023
In his comments, Willie Brown insisted that if another earthquake or fire like 1906 happened in the city today, "The city is prepared" to handle it.