The braver men and those without families to watch over set out for this endangered region, half dressed as they were. In the early morning light they could see the business district below them, many of the buildings in ruins and the flames showing redly in five or six places. Through the streets came the fire engines, called from the outlying districts by a general alarm. The firemen were not aware as yet that no water was to be had.
On Portsmouth Square the panic was indescribable. This old tree plaza, about which the early city was built, is now in the centre of Chinatown, of the Italian district and of the “Barbary Coast,” the “Tenderloin” of the Western metropolis. It is the chief slum district of the city. The tremor here ran up the Chinatown hill and shook down part of the crazy buildings on its southern edge. It brought ruin also to some of the Italian tenements. Portsmouth Square became the refuge of the terrified inhabitants. Out from their underground burrows like so many rats fled the Chinese, trembling in terror into the square, and seeking by beating gongs and other noise-making instruments to scare off the underground demons. Into the square from the other side came the Italian refugees. The panic became a madness, knives were drawn in the insanity of the moment, and two Chinamen were taken to the morgue, stabbed to death for no other reason than pure madness. Here on one side dwelt 20,000 Chinese, and on the other thousands of Italians, Spaniards and Mexicans, while close at hand lived the riff-raff of the “Barbary Coast.”
Seemingly the whole of these rushed for that one square of open ground, the two streams meeting in the centre of the square and heaping up on its edges. There they squabbled and fought in the madness of panic and despair, as so many mad wolves might have fought when caught in the red whirl of a prairie fire, until the soldiers broke in and at the bayonet’s point brought some semblance of order out of the confusion of panic terror.
This scene in Portsmouth Square but illustrated the madness of fear everywhere prevailing. On every side thousands were fleeing from the roaring furnace that minute by minute seemed to extend its boundaries.
In the awful scramble for safety the half-crazed survivors disregarded everything but the thought of themselves and their property. In every excavation and hole throughout the north beach householders buried household effects, throwing them into ditches and covering the holes. Attempts were made to mark the graves of the property so that it could be recovered after the flames were appeased.
The streets were filled with struggling people, some crying and weeping and calling for missing loved ones. Crowding the sidewalks were thousands of householders attempting to drag some of their effects to places of safety. In some instances men with ropes were dragging trunks, tandem style, while others had sewing machines strapped to the trunks. Again, women were rushing for the hills, carrying on their arms only the family cat or a bird cage.