'Disaster!' a Doubtful History of S.F.'s 1906 Quake, Fire


"Disaster!" serves history and the reader ill.

It opens with an account of the geology and geography of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that is flat wrong. It closes with an estimate of the number of dead that stretches the truth until it is broken.

And in between, as to the facts, who knows? Certainly Dan Kurzman has assembled every cliche ever penned about earthquakes and fires and dumped it here willy-nilly.

The reader with only the most casual acquaintance with the Great Earthquake of 1906 gets a sharp jolt near the book's opening. Kurzman has the quake beginning--its epicenter--at Point Arena, 100 miles northwest of San Francisco in Mendocino County and moving south toward San Francisco, striking Point Reyes and Olema before hitting the city and continuing south.

Geologists now think the epicenter was on the San Andreas Fault, somewhere between the Golden Gate and Daly City and Point Reyes Station 45 miles north of the city. The heaviest shaking was at Olema, just south of Point Reyes Station. The shock waves traveled from the epicenter north and south and in all other directions, too.

"Nobody thinks the epicenter was at Point Arena," said Ross Stein, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, interviewed by telephone for this review.

Furthermore, Kurzman writes that as the earthquake came down (he alleges) the Northern California coast, it "splintered ancient redwood forests and ripped the land open." When the ground closed again, he continues, "tons of displaced earth had transformed lowlands into hills, hills into prairies."

That transformation, Stein said, never happened. There was some subsidence around estuaries, but no hills into prairies, or vice versa.

Now, for the book's closing. Kurzman quotes Gladys Hansen, a former San Francisco Library official and historian (now head of the Museum of the City of San Francisco), as having, by thorough research, discovered that the number of dead was not the 498 announced by authorities at the time but more likely 3,000. "While she has been able to confirm 3,000 deaths," he adds, "the catastrophe, she estimates, probably claimed between 5,000 and 10,000 victims."

Hansen, also contacted for this review, said in a telephone interview that that is not so.

"It could eventually go to 5,000," she said, "But 10,000--I don't think so."

Hansen and a colleague, Emmet Condon, have since 1965 been trying to find the accurate number of dead by examining health, cemetery, probate, orphanage and coroners' records and communicating with descendants. In 1989 they published their results in the book "Denial of Disaster." Hansen said Kurzman came to see her when preparing his book. "I thought from his questions that he was going to write a book of fiction," she said.

But "Disaster!" is presented as a work of history. The historian must be humble before the intractable facts of his tale or he will lose the respect and assent of his readers. The San Francisco earthquake and fire was an awesome event. It does not need embellishment.

Kurzman, who has written a number of other books, most recently "Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis," seems in "Disaster!" to be saying that the great story is not enough. He adorns it with cliches, from "sea of fire" and "terror reigned" to "horrifying realization." He decorates it with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic metaphors: He likens the shock wave in Northern California to a "rampaging army"; the fire to a "ravenous vulture" and "a mindless monster." It is all too much.

Yes, the familiar stories are there: A.P. Giannini carting his bank's wealth to his home in San Mateo; the tenor Caruso frightened out of his wits in the Palace Hotel; the burning of the mansions on Nob Hill; the clash between U.S. Army Gen. Frederick Funston and Mayor Eugene Schmitz about the best way to fight the fire (and who was in charge); the dynamiting of 25 blocks of buildings along Van Ness Avenue from Golden Gate Avenue to the Bay to stop the fire from spreading west.

And Kurzman has added some touching common-person narratives, though they are presented, as the whole thing is, in a jerky, frame-jumping style more suited to the movies. In these days when the retelling of horrid disasters is a hot fashion in the book and motion picture worlds, maybe that's what "Disaster!" is, a simulacrum of a book hoping to be a movie.

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