I was scrambling down a hill covered with debris, when a spot of red caught my eye. I dug a bit, and came up with a copy of Collier's Magazine from 1956, in remarkably good condition. The red on the cover was part of a lurid painting of the city of San Francisco in flames, seen from the bay. It was published for the 50th anniversary of the earthquake and fire of 1906. I took the magazine home, and read the article (written in a style as lurid as the cover illustration) and immidiately fell in love with my favorite disaster of all time.
It was 5:12 AM of April 18th, 1906 when Victorian San Francisco met its spectacular doom. (They didn't have daylight saving time then, so it would be 6:12 AM local time today.) I don't know if any survivors old enough to remember the event are alive today, but I doubt it. At least it is remembered now on a number of web sites.
San Francisco History has a nice overview with a few pictures, and links to other sites. America Hurrah has a set of postcards showing the city in 1905, as well as a four photograph panorama of the city in 1905. The most extensive collection of photographs of the disaster and its aftermath that I have found is at the Steinbrugge Collection of the U.C. Berkeley Engineering Research Center. (They have thousands of photographs from earthquakes in all parts of the world over a period of more than a century.)
Someday, of course, it will happen again, and will undoubtedly be far worse, since the population of California is many time what it was in 1906. So, these web sites can serve as both historical record and prophesy. The event they chronicle took place in a world which now seems, in some ways, quaint and old fashioned. Yet the San Francisco of 1906 was in almost all ways a modern city, and its fate reveals the vulnerability of all modern cities to the astonishing power of nature. Since the day I found that old magazine, I have never lost my interest in this well documented disaster. Perhaps my fascination is a premonition.