“The moving finger writes; and having writ, moves on.”
When the last soldier of a war or survivor of a natural disaster dies, that event recedes gradually into history. With the recent death of 109 year-old Bill Del Monte, a benchmark event of the 20th Century, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake became a distant part of the history books, perhaps to be forgotten by adults and never learned by schoolchildren.
It was still dark in San Francisco on the predawn morning of April 19, 1906, when the ground began shaking. For nearly a minute, the tremors intensified, streets cracked and buildings began sliding down landfills. Deadly fires broke out, caused by toppled street lanterns and exposed gas lines. With the city’s major water mains severed, firemen were virtually helpless as they confronted a three-day conflagration larger than the 1871 Chicago Fire.
Witnessed from the Bay, the fires bathed the city in an eerie, preternatural red glow. But the deceptive beauty disguised an unspeakable hell. Hundreds were killed by the fires or were crushed by falling wreckage. Some were trapped in collapsed buildings, and begged to be shot by patrolling police. A few simply disappeared, swallowed by the large chasms in the main city thoroughfares.
Too young to remember the quake, three-month old Bill Del Monte was in the middle of the inferno. His father recounted for Bill securing a horse and wagon when the fire approached the family restaurant. With flames surrounding them on both sides of the street, the family rode to the Bay and took the ferry to Oakland. They stayed in the East Bay until it was safe to return to San Francisco and when they returned, water was scarce in the smoldering city. With help from a friend at the Presidio military base, his father got water and made soup for survivors from a tent until their restaurant was rebuilt.
After the fires burned themselves out, officials estimated the death toll at between 500 and 700. This was a deliberate undercount to avoid discouraging financial investors needed to rebuild the city. There were deaths from starvation and suicide, as well as looters killed by troops guarding the defenseless city. If these deaths and the missing were included the death toll from the brief temblor was at least 3,000, nearly 1% of the population at the time.
A few days short of his 110th birthday, Bill Del Monte died, the last person alive in San Francisco when the earthquake occurred. During his lifetime he was alive for two World Wars (too young to serve in the First, too old to serve in the Second), and a second, less deadly, earthquake in 1989.
History is the record of the experiences of people who lived through point of reference events. Once those people are gone, we may retain their reminiscences in writing or archives but something disappears forever. The 20th Century is slowly receding from memory; the San Francisco Earthquake is merely one of the first reminders of this disappearance. There are no more surviving American World War I veterans and between 400 and 500 World War II veterans are dying every day; the last one will be gone sometime around 2036.
During the second half of this century, we will lose our last Vietnam veteran and there will be no one who was alive when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Milennials should know that one day the bell will toll for them as well. Barring some remarkable advances in longevity, there may be no one who was alive during the 9/11 attacks one hundred years from today. Time and tide wait for no one.
The 1906 Earthquake is now as far removed in time as the presidency of George Washington was to those alive in 1906. Bill Del Monte, the final survivor of the earthquake, is gone now but he warned before he died, “People should remember what happened to San Francisco. Because it could happen again.”
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