Shortly before dawn on April 18, 1906, the city of San Francisco was shaken awake by a massive, magnitude 7.8 earthquake. According to some sources, modern seismic equipment would measure the temblor at a whopping 8.25 on the Richter scale. If you’ve ever experienced a sizable earthquake, you can understand why the time span between 5:13 and 5:14 a.m. was the longest minute ever in The City by The Bay.
During the 60-second shaker, hundreds of structures crumbled, sending bricks, bodies, and debris hurtling into the streets of San Francisco. Underground water mains shattered, leaving firefighters unable to extinguish countless conflagrations that erupted city-wide and raged for four days and nights.
Whether magnitude 7 or 8, an earthquake on its own would have caused frightful damage and death in a town where modern seismic zonation and construction practices are unheard of, as was the case in 1906 San Francisco. Once fire broke out and there was no water with which to fight it, the city was doomed.
The United States Geological Survey ranks the April 18, 1906 event as “one of the most significant earthquakes of all time.” The temblor ruptured the San Andreas fault line from Cape Mendocino to San Juan Batista; a distance of nearly 300 miles. USGS says that one small precursor, or “foreshock,” was felt all around the Bay Area. It was followed almost immediately by a quake that rumbled for around 60 seconds. Ultimately, the quake and subsequent conflagration destroyed more than 25,000 structures and took at least 3,000 lives.
Eyewitness to History notes local resident and visitor descriptions that include “rocks falling from the air” and ground that felt as if it were ”slipping gently from under our feet.” Eyewitnesses to the horrific event said the scene was “bedlam, pandemonium and hell all rolled into one.” Another witness said he saw a herd of panicked cattle stampede up Market Street toward him until a fissure opened and the beasts vanished into a gaping crack in the road.
Adolphus Busch, co-founder of the brewing company that bears his name to this day, was in San Francisco on the morning of the Great Quake of 1906.
“The most terrible thing I saw was the futile struggle of a policeman and others to rescue a man who was pinned down in burning wreckage. The helpless man watched it in silence till the fire began burning his feet. Then he screamed and begged to be killed. The policeman took his name and address and shot him through the head.”
Amid the hubbub and the panic, a 3-month-old infant was gathered into his frightened mother’s arms, bundled onto a horse-drawn cart, and rushed down Broadway Street in an effort to locate a ferry that would take them far from the flaming city. The baby’s name was Bill Del Monte, and he lived in the Bay Area for an additional century. That’s right. The baby Del Monte survived the Great Quake and went on to live another 100 years before passing away last January.
On the morning of April 18, 2016, Bill Del Monte was too young to remember much but recalled his mother recounting the tale of their dash down Broadway Street to the ferry building as flames engulfed both sides of the road. In 2014, Del Monte told NBC Bay Area that he was as surprised as anyone that he lived to such a ripe old age. He also noted that “It wasn’t too much of a city then, but it sure is now.” According to NPR, Bill Del Monte worked as a stockbroker “almost until the day he died.”
Bill Del Monte, the last survivor of the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, died on January 11. Had he lived until January 22, the baby that lived through the biggest quake in California history would have been 110-years-old.
[Photo by Associated Press/AP Images]