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How one minute changed a century

The impact of that April dawn a century ago was as impossible to foresee as the cataclysm itself.

After the ground stopped convulsing at 5:12 a.m., a messenger hurried off in a railroad handcar with orders to keep pumping his way south until he could deliver to San Francisco a shocking dispatch and a plea for help.

"Earthquake. Santa Rosa in ruins and burning. Many injured and probably many killed."

One day, Santa Rosa was a market town of 6,700 pushing into a new century with the same pluck as the electric car line cutting through its bustling business district.

The next -- April 18, 1906 -- some 20 square blocks in the center of Luther Burbank's "chosen spot of all the earth" had been laid to waste by a 7.8 temblor. Only an occasional church spire could be seen rising upward from the heaps of brick and crumbled mortar.

"The destruction was so bad," one survivor would recall, "you could scarcely see where the streets were, as the debris from the buildings filled the streets and covered the car tracks."

At least 100 people perished; some laid to rest in the old Rural Cemetery in anonymity, including an entire family. Apocryphal stories bespoke the terror: a young lady pinned under the timbers of a collapsed hotel, her hair turned instantly gray; dairy cows "gone dry" from fright; a man trapped beneath rubble crying out for someone to shoot him -- a merciful death compared to being burned alive by advancing flames.

But news that a massive earthquake had leveled a small farm country town to the north would get little attention in the shadow of a city grappling with its own disaster. San Francisco itself was on fire.

The Gold Rush Town just beginning to blossom into a powerhouse of West Coast culture and commerce caught the horrified eyes of the world. What still stands as the second fiercest temblor in U.S. history and one of its greatest natural disasters would indelibly be inscribed as "The San Francisco Earthquake."

Writer Jack London made his way down Sonoma Mountain from his Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen to what he called "the doomed city," describing a once cosmopolitan place where "all the shrewd contrivances and safeguards of man had been thrown out of gear by thirty seconds twitching of the earth's crust."


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