I have seen many natural disasters on television but never have I witnessed any natural disaster, like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It is like I went to hell and back in the same day. On the morning of April 18th 1906, I was staying with my friend Tom in San Francisco after a night-long celebration of my cousin’s graduation. Many friends and family came to wish my cousin a long and fruitful life, now that he had finished his university education. As soon as nightfall struck, everybody was preparing to leave for home but my cousin, Tom, and I decided to continue with the celebrations till the wee hours of the night. However, about midnight, my cousin left for home. Tom and I continued partying but not even the several bottles of tequila we took could prepare us for what we would witness that day.
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Early that morning, most of us were still asleep. The moon crept in and out of the room, like a late evening silhouette, but its lazy rays did little to signal us what we would expect for the rest of the day. Tucked in our beds, we snore like we had no worries at all. About 5:12am, there was a strong ground shake that almost sent us falling off our beds. I remember glancing at the alarm clock as soon as I heard the first shake. For a moment, I thought the alarm clock rang and I knocked it over accidentally as I tried to silence it. I was wrong. It was the movement of the bedroom floor that had tipped it over. Failing to comprehend what was going on; I was in time to prevent the lampshade from falling. Everything that was movable was shaking, and items hanged on the bedroom wall fell and shattered on the ground.
Amazingly, Tom slept through the first seconds of the commotion. I rudely hit him on the abdomen to wake him up, and almost like a jolt, he jumped off the bed. I could almost see his heart racing because he looked like he was accosted by a ghost. I shouted “I think there is an earthquake!” No sooner had I finished this sentence, our bedroom floor started to shake violently. Frightened for our lives, we rushed downstairs to find the television leaping from its cabinet and falling four feet to the floor. Heavy objects which were scattered around the house also danced on the floor in unison. Soon, the staircase cracked and the lights went off. We started panicking and I could see a stream of sweat gliding down Tom’s forehead.
For a moment, we stood in the middle of the living room hoping the shaking would stop but we stared at the ceiling a minute too long to realize that we hoped for a miracle. The house could not stop shaking. The ceiling started cracking and the last wall hanging fell into pieces under the might of the earthquake. We still stood in the middle of the living room unable to comprehend what was happening. Tom stared at the falling paintings in disbelief. He had convinced his parents to let him have the house for the night as we celebrated John’s graduation but he could not believe the same house that he swore to hold together was falling in pieces. In the next couple of seconds, the shaking became so intense that the roof was ready to fall on our heads.
Fortunately, we managed to rush out of the house in our pajamas before part of the wall caved in. Tom rushed to the side of the house to see if the gas main was broken but luckily he found it had not. For the first time in many years, neighbors were gathered around their houses, staring in disbelief at their shaking houses and conversing silently in low tones. The shaking went on for a while before it got really intense and the buildings started swaying left and right in what almost looked like eternity. I later understood that the buildings shook for about five minutes before they collapsed (Nobleman 3). The intensity of the earthquake was unprecedented. The injuries we would have suffered if we were still trapped in our houses were unimaginable. I doubt if we would have made it alive. Suddenly, there was a loud bang, like an explosive went off. We were all too scared to stand at the same spot as the banging sound rented the air but some of us only ran a few feet away before we realized that it was the sound of a damaged gas pipe that had exploded. Soon, there were about three more loud bangs and almost four houses caught fire simultaneously.
Almost like the disaster was orchestrated, there was a strong wind that started to blow from the east. In no time, objects were flying around our neighborhood. Tress started falling, telephone and electricity poles crashed into one other and people started to roll on the ground like they were having a bad dream. Unfortunately, the burning houses were fueled by the winds and soon, almost the entire block was in flames. Houses burnt like a scene from a movie. One would have thought there was a bomb dropped in the neighborhood.
The growing intensity of the fires made everyone really scared. Some women started to scream while others shouted “We are going to die!” Minutes after the shaking subsided, people were still terrified as most of them clutched together in fright, casting gazes at the skies like they were about to cave in too. The roads had cracked and some even formed huge holes on them like a comet had crashed on earth. Exiting the neighborhood by road was almost impossible. Avoiding the intensity of the burning houses we walked to safer grounds.
Being new to California, you would think its inhabitants were used to earthquakes; however, the sheer sight of fear in the eyes of the victims confirmed otherwise. Earthquakes with a magnitude of 4.0 (or thereabout) were not that uncommon in California (Nobleman 1). In fact, after talking to Tom, he mentioned that some of these earthquakes even go unreported. However, he acknowledged that the day’s earthquake was nothing like he had seen before. Later we confirmed that, the earthquake hit a magnitude of 7.7, with some reports saying it was as high as 8.25 (Nobleman 1).
As dawn gave way to daylight, we could see fire burning from the horizon. Many buildings around the neighborhood had also caught fire but the number could not be compared to the burning buildings we could see from the horizon. There was a sudden silence in our vicinity as the aftermath of the earthquake set in but there were still a few one-off shouts of cries echoing through the air. Everyone was a little jumpy because every little aftershock was treated like a signal of another strong earthquake.
Since most of our belongings were destroyed in the earthquake, we hitched a ride to town to get some food, water and batteries because we knew the electricity poles were destroyed and there would be a blackout. Halfway into town, we witnessed the damage that the earthquake had caused. For instance, the 14 freeway (which was a hallmark of the vibrancy of San Francisco) had collapsed into the interstate five, thereby cutting the traffic flow between California and its neighboring states. What made us more frightened were the peeling mountain roads that fell below us when we drove into town. From the back of our truck, we could barely see the tarmac. I did not understand why our driver did not panic (because we did). Past the mountain roads, trees were scattered along the roads, blocking the traffic flow (it was like a giant had come and pulled them off their roots).
Inside San Francisco, the damage was worse than I could ever imagine. The wide boulevard that often bore a big “welcome to Francisco” sign was destroyed. In fact, it was difficult to determine where the streets and the ruins parted. A few kilometers into town, there was a growing pungent smell and we could barely catch our breath under the California heat. As we drove through the streets, we bounced over piles of concrete rubbles. If we were walking on foot, it would not be difficult to sprain our ankles over the rough terrain. The material damage in the town could not be compared to the humanitarian disaster that was taking shape. Rescue workers were pulling dead bodies from fallen buildings, but in their eyes, we could see the dying hope of getting more survivors.
A drive to the supermarket which ordinarily took us 45 minutes took us about four hours. We reached the supermarket and found a long line of terrified people waiting to buy supplies. Fortunately, the supermarket still stood strong, though it had some cracks on its walls. The devastation we saw on peoples’ faces was understandable because not far away from the supermarket, there were sights of burning oil field fires, exploding vehicles and burning (or burnt) buildings (Nobleman 1).
After doing our shopping, we did not have anywhere to go. Our home was completely destroyed and no one would let us hitch a ride back to our neighborhood again. Also, the train lines were not working and there were very few people who would let us stay with them for the night. The phone lines were equally not working, so we could not communicate with anybody to ask them if they had a place where we could stay for the night. After acknowledging that we had very limited options, Tom resorted to sending numerous text messages to his friends asking them if they were okay. As night fell, we remained stranded in San Francisco. We went into an evacuation center (an elementary school gymnasium) where we registered our names and joined the group of 300 homeless people. The evacuation center was very huge and it had a multipurpose design which was almost meant to accommodate earthquake disaster victims. The building was also firmly strong, and in my analysis, it was build to withstand very strong earthquakes. We camped there for several days before we left the town.
Nobleman, Marc. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. New York: Compass Point Books, 2007. Print.