The spectacle of the entire population of a great city thus roused suddenly from slumber by a fierce earthquake shock and sent flying into the streets in utter panic, where not buried under falling walls or tumbling debris, is one that can scarcely be pictured in words, and can be given in any approach to exact realization only in the narratives of those who passed through its horrors and experienced the sensations to which it gave rise. Some of the more vivid of these personal accounts will be presented later, but at present we must confine ourselves to a general statement of the succession of events.
The earthquake proved but the beginning and much the least destructive part of the disaster. In many of the buildings there were fires, banked for the night, but ready to kindle the inflammable material hurled down upon them by the shock. In others were live electric wires which the shock brought in contact with woodwork. The terror-stricken fugitives saw, here and there, in all directions around them, the alarming vision of red flames curling upward and outward, in gleaming contrast to the white light of dawn just showing in the eastern sky. Those lurid gleams climbed upward in devouring haste, and before the sun had fairly risen a dozen or more conflagrations were visible in all sections of the business part of the city, and in places great buildings broke with startling suddenness into flame, which shot hotly high into the air.
While the mass of the people were stunned by the awful suddenness of the disaster and stood rooted to the ground or wandered helplessly about in blank dismay, there were many alert and self-possessed among them who roused themselves quickly from their dismay and put their energies to useful work. Some of these gave themselves to the work of rescue, seeking to save the injured from their perilous situation and draw the bodies of the dead from the ruins under which they lay. Those base wretches to whom plunder is always the first thought were as quickly engaged in seeking for spoil in edifices laid open to their plundering hands by the shock. Meanwhile the glare of the flames brought the fire-fighters out in hot haste with their engines, and up from the military station at the Presidio, on the Golden Gate side of the city, came at double quick a force of soldiers, under the efficient command of General Funston, of Cuban and Philippine fame. These trained troops were at once put on guard over the city, with directions to keep the best order possible, and with strict command to shoot all looters at sight. Funston recognized at the start the necessity of keeping the lawless element under control in such an exigency as that which he had to face. Later in the day the First Regiment of California National Guards was called out and put on duty, with similar orders.