From Allen Matthews
A tradition in San Francisco resumed Sunday morning when a small crowd of politicians, firefighters, police officers, and the public gathered before dawn to celebrate the 115th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake that brought the city to its knees.
The gathering realized that the phoenix that was created at that time is now alive and bringing a renewal after COVID.
“We are coming out of this pandemic and we are coming out stronger than ever,” said Mayor London Breed as she stood in front of Lotta’s fountain to address the gathering of about 75 people.
At 5:12 a.m. – when the 1906 quake broke the San Andreas Fault – the sirens of a lone San Francisco fire engine wailed at the intersection of Market, Kearny, and Geary Streets. A gift from actress Lotta Crabtree in 1875, the fountain was a gathering place for survivors after the disaster that rocked The City with an estimated 7.9 on the Richter scale. At least 3,000 people died and large fires caused more damage and targeted huge parts of San Francisco.
With dawn on Sunday morning more than an hour away, the downtown scene was eerily quiet.
Typically about a dozen fire engines turn their sirens at the same time. Usually the lights go on in the guest rooms of the Palace Hotel seconds later – visitors are alarmed by the sudden excitement in the middle of the night. Not this year: The palace remains COVID closed.
As the sirens calmed down, Donna Ewald Huggins – disguised as Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a fire department patron who died in 1929 – led everyone to sing a masked rendition of “San Francisco” from the 1936 film about the disaster.
For decades, crowds have gathered at the Lotta Fountain to mark the moment that transformed San Francisco. At the time, some thought the city was dead. Cooler people realized that rebirth from the ashes was not only possible, but also destined. Nine years later, the Pan-Pacific Exposition took place in San Francisco, signaling the city’s rebirth.
The Predawn Memorial was a small event that gained momentum on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the quake. The 2006 gathering drew thousands to see the last of the survivors arrive in the stately convertible of the police department’s pre-war parade. But over the years also the last survivors. And last year’s iron greeting to the past was canceled due to COVID.
“This is the first time such a meeting has taken place in over a year,” said Breed. “Except for protests.”
But history is not the only reason to be commemorated. California is long overdue for another major quake, and scientists and government officials are warning that preparation and planning for the first 72 hours after a disaster is vital.
“It’s a good time to remind people,” said Breed, stressing that first responders have their hands full helping the injured. Everyone should have enough food, water, and other supplies for at least three days.
“It is time to revisit these emergency kits to see what has expired.” She said,
After the ceremony, participants drove to the church and 20th Street to celebrate a fire hydrant that continued to pump water that day despite the main water breaks across town. The original plug, to which the rescue of the missionary district is attributed, is given a new coat of gold paint every year for the anniversary.
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