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Disaster! The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. By Dan Kurzman. (Harper Perennial: 2002. Pg. 336.) ISBN: 0060084324.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - March 27, 2002

At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, San Francisco was hit by a major foreshock. Several seconds later, at 5:13 a.m., the city was hit by a devastating earthquake that measured 8.3 on the Richter scale. This earthquake lasted almost one minute, and was so strong that it was felt as far away as Nevada and Oregon. The earthquake also succeeded in rupturing a 430 kilometers long (approximately 290 miles) section of the San Andreas fault. In its own right, this earthquake was a disaster. However, the Great San Francisco Earthquake touched off a fire that raged for four days and nearly annihilated the entire city. Combined, the two events resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 people. This figure only represents those deaths which could be documented. The real death toll may have been upwards of 10,000. The earthquake and associated fire also destroyed "about twenty-eight thousand buildings worth from 350 million to 500 million dollars." (Pg. 412.)

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake holds a special fascination for anyone interested in earthquakes and for those interested in how people deal with massive disasters. It is also an event that is of particular interest to those living in San Francisco. Not only as a historical curiosity, but also due to the fact that it could all happen again - without warning!

Disaster! The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, by Dan Kurzman offers an intriguing glimpse of San Francisco before the earthquake, a detailed survey of the events that occurred during the earthquake and fire, and the aftermath of the disaster. Besides detailing the efforts taken to rebuild the city, Kurzman also provides some insights into what the future might hold, seismologically speaking, for modern San Francisco.

In writing this superb book, Kurzman has taken a social history approach, telling the story of the event through the eyes, and voices, of those who actually lived through the disaster. Following a brief overview of the history and settlement of San Francisco, Kurzman jumps into the meat of his story. He begins the main body of the narrative by showing us what San Francisco was like the night before the earthquake struck. He introduces us to participants in the disaster, offering first hands accounts of the disaster. This book gives voice to countless victims of the disaster, from a variety of ethnic and economic circles. These voices include a young school boy, a newspaper reporter, a young woman whose husband deserts her, and their children, in the aftermath of the disaster, a young man from Chinatown, and even 'greats' such as John Barrymore and Enrico Caruso. Interestingly, Caruso had come to San Francisco rather than going to Naples as he had planned. He changed his plans due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which, he felt, made Naples an unsafe venue. San Francisco, he reasoned, was much safer. Kurzman also introduces the reader to many of the key players who would be charged with the task of trying to save the city, including San Francisco's corrupt Mayor, Eugene Schmitz. In exquisite detail, Kurzman chronicles the hero's and the victims of the disaster, and the great wickedness and goodness that emerged in the days following the destruction of the city.

By personalizing the events of the disaster by letting the reader get to know those who endured it, Kurzman brings the story to life. Therefore, as he begins to describe the actual earthquake, and the fire that raged in its aftermath, you can feel the palpable terror of the city and sense the despair of the people as they struggled to free those trapped in the rubble before the advancing inferno engulfed them. Most important, Kurzman does not end his narrative with the end of the actual crisis. He continues on, and continues on to tell the story of the first few days, weeks, and months after the disaster when martial law was in force. This was a horrific period during which soldiers and militia men brazenly shot anyone they pleased, becoming, in many regards, an occupying army that terrorized the very people they were suppose to be helping.

Kurzman's account of the disaster is compelling, and fascinating. This book is eminently readable and it provides a well-researched introduction into the events surrounding the great earthquake and fire. It will be of interest to general readers and younger students. While this book offers an excellent introduction to the disaster, it will not suffice if you are looking for an academic overview on the subject. For those interested in pursuing the topic of the San Francisco earthquake and fire in greater depth, Kurzman has included an excellent bibliography on the subject that will point you in the right direction. This book includes endnotes, a list of those individuals mentioned in the text, a street map of 1906 San Francisco, and it also contains a variety of archival illustrations from the time of the disaster.

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