The countdown began, prompting the assembled dignitaries, spectators, and news reporters to speak as one. Ten seconds later, at exactly 5:12 AM, a siren sounded, which blasted for the same length of time as the ground shook in this part of the city exactly 105 years earlier.
This was the scene early yesterday morning at Lotta’s Fountain at the corner of Kearny and Market Streets in downtown San Francisco.
Lotta’s Fountain was donated to the city in 1875 by noted entertainer Lotta Crabtree, and was one of the few structures that survived the quake and fire 31 years later. After the disaster, survivors gathered at the 24-foot cast iron structure, and that tradition has continued every year since.
I found myself among the bleary-eyed curiosity-seekers yesterday. Some personal business brought my wife Kimi and I to the Bay Area for a few days and we decided to spend some of the our free time up north doing “tectonic touring” – the perfect pastime for a couple of earthquake geeks.
I did the first part of the tour solo, letting Kimi continue sleeping back at the hotel, while I motored into the city. The fog was thick and the roads nearly empty as I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge at 4:30 AM.
It wasn’t hard finding the fountain at that hour. It was lit up by spotlights and surrounded by several cops, spectators, and news crews. As I approached the scene, I could see former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown giving a speech from the base of the fountain.
I parked and walked back to the fountain, arriving just as a large black 1930 Lincoln convertible pulled up carrying Bill Del Monte. At 105, Del Monte is one of only three known living survivors of the quake, and the only one to appear at the ceremony. He was only three-months old at the time of the quake, and has no memories whatsoever of the event, but he was there, being driven to safety by his family in a horse-drawn wagon while flames danced all around.
Knowing it was my only chance to ever meet a living link to the biggest disaster in California history, I wormed my way through the reporters surrounding his car, shook his hand, and thanked him for coming. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought that this was Mr. Del Monte’s grandson, as he could easily pass for a seventy-year-old. (What is it with these centenarians who look so young? When I’m seventy, I’m sure I’ll easily pass for a 105-year-old.)
After the siren blast the crowd moved on to the corner of 20th and Church Street, where every year they repaint a fire hydrant that helped save that part of the city.
I wasn’t around to witness that tradition as I was speeding back to our hotel in San Rafael to catch a few hours of sleep before checking out and beginning the next leg of the tectonic tour.
(Tomorrow, we head up to Point Reyes on the California coast to find visual evidence of the San Francisco quake.)