On the 17th of April, 1906, the city was, as usual, gay, careless, busy, its people attending to business or pleasure with their ordinary vim as inclination led them, and not a soul dreaming of the horrors that lay in wait. They were as heedless of coming peril and death as the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah before the rain of fire from heaven descended upon their devoted heads. This is not to say that they were doomed by God to destruction like these “cities of the plains.” We should more wisely say that the forces of ruin within the earth take no heed of persons or places. They come and go as the conditions of nature demand, and if man has built one of his cities across their destined track, its doom comes from its situation, not from the moral state of its inhabitants.
That night the people went, with their wonted equanimity, to their beds, rich and poor, sick and well alike. Did any of them dream of disaster in the air? It may be so, for often, as the poet tells us, “Coming events cast their shadows before.” But, forewarned by dreams or not, doubtless not a soul in the great city was prepared for the terrible event so near at hand, when, at thirteen minutes past five o’clock on the dread morning of the 18th, they felt their beds lifted beneath them as if by a Titan hand, heard the crash of falling walls and ceilings, and saw everything in their rooms tossed madly about, while through their windows came the roar of an awful disaster from the city without.
It was a matter not of minutes, but of seconds, yet on all that coast, long the prey of the earthquake, no shock like it had ever been felt, no such sudden terror awakened, no such terrible loss occasioned as in those few fearful seconds. Again and again the trembling of the earth passed by, three quickly repeated shocks, and the work of the demon of ruin was done. People woke with a start to find themselves flung from their beds to the floor, many of them covered with the fragments of broken ceilings, many lost among the ruins of falling floors and walls, many pinned in agonizing suffering under the ruins of their houses, which had been utterly wrecked in those fatal seconds. Many there were, indeed, who had been flung to quick if not to instant death under their ruined homes.
Those seconds of the reign of the elemental forces had turned the gayest, most careless city on the continent into a wreck which no words can fitly describe. Those able to move stumbled in wild panic across the floors of their heaving houses, regardless of clothing, of treasures, of everything but the mad instinct for safety, and rushed headlong into the streets, to find that the earth itself had yielded to the energy of its frightful interior forces and had in places been torn and rent like the houses themselves. New terrors assailed the fugitives as fresh tremors shook the solid ground, some of them strong enough to bring down shattered walls and chimneys, and bring back much of the mad terror of the first fearful quake. The heaviest of these came at eight o’clock. While less forcible than that which had caused the work of destruction, it added immensely to the panic and dread of the people and put many of the wanderers to flight, some toward the ferry, the great mass in the direction of the sand dunes and Golden Gate Park.