04/18/2013 03:50 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2013

San Francisco 1906 Earthquake Anniversary: Remembering 'The Big One' 107 Years Later (PHOTOS)

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At 5:12 a.m. on April 6, 1906, San Franciscans leapt from their beds as a 7.9 earthquake rocked the city.

Shaking was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles, from Nevada to the crumbling Pacific Coast. The roof of the Grand Opera House collapsed, the city erupted into flames and the original flag from the 1846 Bear Revolt was incinerated.

"We could not get to our feet," said survivor P. Barrett in a 2006 account to NPR. "Big buildings were crumbling as one might crush a biscuit in one's hand."

When the dust and flames finally settled, at least 3,000 people were dead and more than 200,000 were homeless. The city, a thriving metropolis moments before, was reminiscent of ancient ruins.

"As small as I was I remember my mother carrying me down the stairs with her left arm as she held on to the banister," said earthquake survivor Herbert Hamrol in an interview with NBC in 2006.

Hamrol's family was one of thousands who lost their homes to the disaster.

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San Francisco 1906 Earthquake

"People had no homes, no food, nothing," he said. Hamrol told NBC that his parents rarely spoke of the day. "I think it was just too painful for them."


But in the earthquake's dark cloud, San Francisco's had a lining like California silver.

"The great earthquake of 1906 was the making of the city as we now understand it," said San Francisco Symphony Director Michael Tilson Thomas in a documentary. "It was a great disaster, but the city rallied to not only rebuild the city, but to try and rebuild a city that was of much greater significance than the one that had been destroyed."

In the years after the quake, San Francisco took the opportunity to resurrect the city as it had never been before. Within years, San Francisco had not only rebuilt its infrastructure, but had also added a neoclassical civic center, a subway system, Coit Tower, the San Francisco Opera, the San Francisco Symphony and, soon after, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The city skyrocketed from the ashes.


On Thursday, 107 years after the tragic quake, San Francisco honored its recovery with its annual commemoration. But this year was unlike any other: for the first time since the tragic quake, no survivors attended the ceremony.

Nevertheless, city officials, police officers and fire fighters and scores of onlookers observed a moment of silence and laid a wreath at Lotta's Fountain – the Market Street site where survivors posted pictures of missing loved ones in 1906.

The commemoration of the earthquake was especially bittersweet this week, as attendees remembered another tragic disaster – Monday's Boston Marathon bombing.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the ceremony was delayed as police discovered a suspicious package across the street from the crowd. After investigation, it was determined to be a suitcase filled with clothes, but officers moved the crowd to Union Square as an added precaution.

"We are doing today what San Franciscans do best," said Supervisor London Breed, according to the Chronicle. "We are improvising."

“As we observe the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, I encourage all San Franciscans to take steps to become better prepared for any emergency,” said Mayor Ed Lee in a release. “And, as we ask our citizens to be prepared, the City is also taking steps to upgrade infrastructure that will serve us during an emergency."

Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White joined the mayor. "We are reminded on this date each year that we must remain diligent in our efforts to be prepared, as individuals and as a community."