This city awoke before sunrise Tuesday to mark the 100th anniversary of its darkest hour -- a deadly early-morning earthquake that killed more than 3,000 and left half the city homeless.
As the first strains of dawn colored the sky, thousands gathered at Lotta’s Fountain on Market Street to observe a moment of silence for those who perished and to honor the survivors of the April 18, 1906, temblor, one of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history.
Men sported black bowlers and carried finely crafted walking sticks. Women wore corseted dresses and platter hats. One man turned up in a stocking cap and nightshirt, illustrating how the quake drove residents from their beds and into the streets.
Ann Barbee, an office manager in Marin County, made it for the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1987 and rode the cable cars on the last day before they were taken out of service years ago for repairs.
“This is historic,” she said. “How could you not come?”
Her son, Todd, stepped forward to take her picture. “Smile, Mom,” he deadpanned. “You’ve been waiting 100 years for this.”
Tuesday’s activities -- which also included 6 a.m. beers and bloody marys served at nearby watering holes and a 10 a.m. parade -- started in solemn remembrance as Mayor Gavin Newsom and other dignitaries laid a wreath at the fountain, which had served as an impromptu message board for families after the quake.
Newsom also recognized a dozen survivors in attendance.
The survivors were treated as celebrities. They signed autographs and were ushered to a breakfast in a 1931 Lincoln with whitewalls.
As one survivor in a red sweater and pink scarf ambled onto the stage, she raised her arms in victory, like a boxer after a knockout.
The crowd erupted in cheers.
“Go get ‘em, granny!” one man yelled.
Roving about like a game-show host, Newsom interviewed the survivors on a brisk morning where temperatures dipped into the low 50s.
How did white-haired Norma Norwood feel?
“Cold,” she responded.
Then, without missing a beat, she added, “But I’ve got Gavin Newsom to warm me up,” bringing a blush from the mayor, who’s young enough to be her great-grandson.
One after the other during the 90-minute event, officials boasted of how magnificently the city rebuilt itself. In the background hung the centennial commemoration’s official banner: “San Francisco Rising.”
“In the days after the quake, the author Jack London wrote for Eastern readers that ‘San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories,’ ” Annemarie Conroy, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Services, told the crowd. “But we say today, ‘How wrong he was!’ ”
Spectators, including third- and fourth-generation San Franciscans, began jockeying for a good view of the floodlit stage shortly after 2 a.m. Brad Eacker and wife Theresa of nearby Mountain View, made their vintage 1906 outfits -- a sack suit and floor-length gown.
Theresa said the outfit made her appreciate what women of the day endured to be fashionable. “You walk differently, you carry yourself differently,” she said.
“But remember, dear,” her husband added, “you’re wearing a corset.”
Not far away, musician Brad Kopp was dressed in a rented gray suit and matching top hat. “I feel a lot more dashing,” he quipped, “a bit less like a rapscallion.”
Pat and Kate McAnaney of Monterey were ushered to seats in a VIP section after telling a firefighter that Kate’s grandfather survived the quake.
Henry Hertlein, a 26-year-old German immigrant and baker, had wandered the damaged city in tears with thousands of others, Kate recalled. “Then he moved to Oakland and he never came back.
“He never talked about it,” she said. “It was pretty traumatic.”
As the 5:13 a.m. memorial moment neared, the crowd began an impromptu countdown. At the end, someone shouted, “Happy anniversary, San Francisco!”
The moment of silence that followed ended with the wail of fire engines. Several horse-drawn fire wagons, the type used to fight the fires that erupted after the 1906 quake, were wheeled past, prompting one woman to observe: “No wonder the whole city burned.”
But the survivors stole the show. Wrapped in fleece blankets provided by the event’s longtime organizer -- Taren Sapienza -- they pondered questions from Newsom. Norwood told the mayor she was “the result of the earthquake” -- conceived and born in a tent in Golden Gate Park.
An hour later, brothers Matt and Kevin Murphy, San Francisco natives, toasted the earthquake with Budweiser at a downtown bar.
“Here’s to San Francisco,” Matt said, clinking his brother’s bottle. “We’re proud of this place.”
With that, a bleary-eyed, proud, reflective city stumbled into morning.
The San Francisco Chronicle wrapped the daily paper with the front page from April 19, 1906. “EARTHQUAKE AND FIRE: SAN FRANCISCO IN RUINS,” the headline screamed. The San Francisco Examiner reprinted a panicked essay by an observer who heard “signals of agony” from victims in the rubble.
Hawkers handed the papers out along Market Street as a parade organized by the city’s firefighters worked its way down San Francisco’s main artery.
After weeks of rain, Tuesday morning brought blinding sun and the smell of blossoms across the city.
Local politicians tooled down the parade route in antique convertibles, doing the flat-handed celebrity wave. Bagpipers, an antique horse ambulance and trade unionists marched. “We built this town,” boasted a banner by the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council. City refuse collectors did an elaborate dance with hulking garbage cans on wheels. A band playing Dixieland jazz wandered past. Firefighters waved from vintage wagons.
“When we first started watching, it felt a little like Veteran’s Day in Marlborough, Mass.,” said Ann Dolyniuk, 63, whose great-grandfather disappeared during the quake. “San Francisco pulled it together.”
To join the commemorations, Michael Dehlinger took Monday and Tuesday off work from the city of Palo Alto utilities district -- where seismic awareness is one of his duties. He donned a woolen waistcoat, felt bowler hat and black leather gloves, and showed up before dawn to pay respects to his great-great-grandfather.
Like Dolyniuk’s, Dehlinger’s ancestor had perished, a night watchman who never returned home from his shift. After camping with her four children in Dolores Park, Dehlinger’s great-great-grandmother found lodging over a blacksmith shop -- and became a blacksmith.
“This is sentimental for me,” Dehlinger said, with satisfied exhaustion. “This gives you a sense of what it would be like to be jolted awake.”