San Francisco Is Burning: The Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fires

Overview

At 5:12 a.m. on the morning of April 18, 1906, San Francisco was struck by one of the worst earthquakes in history, instantly killing hundreds. The ensuing fires that ravaged the city for days were responsible for the deaths of as many as 3,000 more. In all, 522 blocks and 28,188 buildings were leveled, and some 200,000 people dislocated.

This watershed event in American history has never before been told with the richness of historical detail and insight that our foremost ...

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Overview

At 5:12 a.m. on the morning of April 18, 1906, San Francisco was struck by one of the worst earthquakes in history, instantly killing hundreds. The ensuing fires that ravaged the city for days were responsible for the deaths of as many as 3,000 more. In all, 522 blocks and 28,188 buildings were leveled, and some 200,000 people dislocated.

This watershed event in American history has never before been told with the richness of historical detail and insight that our foremost historian of fire, Dennis Smith, brings to it in San Francisco Is Burning. Smith cinematically recounts this terrible tragedy through the stories of the people who lived through those terrible days—from a valiant naval officer who helped save the city's piers and wharves to Eugene Schmitz, the crooked mayor, to the "debonair scoundrel" Abe Ruef, the most erudite city boss in American history. Throughout, Smith reveals many unknown details about the event, from the city's great vulnerability to fire—due to its corrupt and hasty building practices—to the widespread racism the quake unleashed and the atrocities committed by national guardsmen. Told with verve and a seasoned firefighter's knowledge, San Francisco Is Burning is the gripping and definitive account of one of the greatest disasters of the twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews

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It is widely known that in 1906, San Francisco suffered one of the worst earthquakes in history. Fewer people, however, know that the fires that ensued were far more deadly than the initial shock, killing more than 3,000 people in the next several days. In San Francisco Is Burning, former fireman Dennis Smith follows the blistering paths of this unchecked conflagration, which ultimately destroyed 522 blocks and 28,188 structures. He places this terrible tragedy within the context of the city's corrupt government and substandard building practices and bares the widespread racism that the quake unleashed. An American tragedy in a new light.
Kate Julian
Smith's chronicle of this block-by-block fight against the fire is riveting. One does wish that he'd stuck to straightforward narration and not resorted to quite so much dramatization; a recitation of the facts is quite gripping enough. But it is a careful rendering overall, and a sobering one.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Firefighter turned author Smith (Report from Ground Zero) performs an exhausting autopsy on the temblor and subsequent fire that devastated San Francisco 100 years ago. With 92 chapters, the narrative effect is one of a nervous cameraman trying to take in everything (the chapter on Enrico Caruso jumping from his bed at the Palace Hotel is one paragraph long) and managing to make a distant event seem even more remote. The author takes aim at the procedures of the official response and the chain of command, considers whether the army did more than the navy and presents "what-if" scenarios that will appeal most to students of how to manage a natural disaster. An "especially cruel irony" was the fact that saloons were ordered closed on the day of the fire, yet there, in bottles, jugs and kegs, "was undoubtedly enough wine to extinguish the early fires." Smith too often pauses to backfill the careers and family histories of various personalities or discuss the tectonics of earthquakes. His firefighter's-eye-view of the disaster will have a tough time competing with Simon Winchester's terrific A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, due out in October. (Sept. 26 Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The centennial of the San Francisco earthquake is coming up in April 2006, and the authors of these two distinct new histories of the event each frame their work within their own particular expertise. Former firefighter Smith (Report from Engine Co. 82) takes a look at the famous San Francisco disaster from a firefighter's point of view. He recounts the events by focusing on some of the major actors, such as the heroic naval officer who saved the piers, the surprisingly effective if wholly corrupt Mayor Abe Ruef, Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, and Gen. Frederick Funston, who probably did a lot to destroy the city through misguided management of men and explosives. While Smith does reveal the factors that made the fire so devastating, such as lack of building codes, flammable materials, and insufficient firefighting infrastructure, he concentrates on the human side, effectively telling the many stories of heroism, stupidity, cowardice, strength, bad luck, and good fortune bred by the fire. This is a readable and exciting book. Winchester (Krakatoa), an Oxford-trained geologist, starts with a lengthy dissertation on the history of geology and the development of the tectonic plate theory, now the generally accepted model for earthquake production. In the course of a ramble from Iceland to the western edge of the North American plate, which runs directly under San Francisco, he manages to cover the New Madrid earthquake, a variety of familiar and unfamiliar faults, and quite a bit of interesting lore about the complex California geology. The author does describe the 1906 event in considerable detail but goes further to place it in context with the earth's geologic history and discusses the effect it had on a century of American history. An outstanding work, less accessible but more intellectually stimulating than Smith's, Winchester's title would be well placed in most public libraries and is likely to be popular over time. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/05.]-Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Shake, rattle and roar: Firefighter-writer Smith (A Song for Mary, 1999, etc.) chronicles the conflagration that followed the great San Francisco quake. "This town," warned San Francisco fire chief Dennis Sullivan, "is in an earthquake belt. One of these fine mornings we will get a shake that will put this little water system out, and then we'll have a fire." Sullivan had long agitated for the improvement of an aging cistern system, but money for such renovation always disappeared somewhere inside the corrupt mayor's office. The chief was one of the first firefighters put out of commission in the earthquake of April 18, 1906, and many other firefighters were killed or injured in the battle to contain the great fire that followed the quake, fueled by broken gas mains and feeding on the predominantly wooden-frame architecture of the city. (As Smith writes, America led the world in annual fire losses at the time "and continues this appalling average today," with fire-related costs something like six times greater than those of Europe.) In the end, the San Francisco blaze was "bigger than any metropolitan fire in history," killing more than 3,000 people, destroying 28,188 buildings and leaving 200,000 people homeless. In his vivid narrative, Smith highlights unsung firefighters and some of the more-or-less ordinary people who rose to necessity and became, for just that moment, great heroes. One such man, a naval officer named Freeman, was never properly acknowledged for his work in battling fires on the San Francisco wharves and piers, and Smith's encomium is fitting, particularly given the tragic denouement of Freeman's story. Smith turns up much of interest, including reports of atrocitiescommitted by the military during the blaze and a tally of the small number of insurance companies that actually paid what they owed to their policyholders. A secondary but readable adjunct to Philip Fradkin's broader-ranging Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 (not reviewed).
From the Publisher
"An American epic, a masterwork.... Simth teaches so much we need to know. Simultaneously his literary skills mesmerize us. Best of all he inspires." —-Thomas Fleming, author of The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670034420
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 9/22/2005
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Meet the Author

Dennis Smith

Dennis Smith, a former New York City firefighter, is the founding editor of Firehouse Magazine and the bestselling author of Report from Ground Zero.

Alan Sklar is the winner of several AudioFile Earphones Awards and a multiple finalist for the APA's prestigious Audie Award. Named a Best Voice of 2009 by AudioFile magazine, his work has twice earned him a Booklist Editors' Choice Award, a Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Award, and Audiobook of the Year by ForeWord magazine.

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