Whole Lotta Shakin'

Two new books on the 1906 earthquake prove themselves worthy complements

"There will be a quake, it will be considerable, it will be somewhere in the vicinity of San Francisco ... and it will take place, most probably, before 2032. The only true unknown is the precise year, month, day, and time."

So writes Simon Winchester near the end of A Crack in the Edge of the World(HarperCollins, $27.95), his exhaustive account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the resulting fires that wiped out huge swaths of downtown, forever changed the face of the city, and killed more than 3,000 people. With the irresistible 100-year anniversary of the quake approaching, and considering the damage done to American cities recently by terrorists and natural disasters, it's no surprise that Winchester's timely tome is joined by another on the same subject, Dennis Smith's San Francisco Is Burning(Viking, $29.95). Taken together, the two very different books provide an almost uncanny complement to one another -- and a very different answer to the underlying question coursing through each chapter: What if this happens again tomorrow?

Smith is a former firefighter turned author, with Report From Ground Zero already to his credit; he traces the tragedy through the eyes of its participants, mostly the "ordinary" firemen and military personnel who awoke to 47 seconds of shaking on the morning of April 18, 1906, and plunged headfirst into the relief and rescue efforts. Winchester, on the other hand, has a fascination with what he calls "new geology" and possesses an admirable talent for distilling challenging scientific concepts into near-novelistic narrative; his book attempts to put the tremendous earthquake into a planetwide context, while still illuminating the characters at the center of the story.

And many of those characters, unfortunately, were corrupt or clueless. Heroic fire chief Dennis Sullivan, who sustained injuries from a falling hotel cupola when the quake began and died four days later, had for years begged the Board of Supervisors to modernize the city's water supply and develop a more comprehensive fire-preparedness plan. But his pleas fell on the deaf ears of backroom-deal-making supes, who were in the monetary clutches of political boss Abraham Ruef and thoroughly corrupt Mayor Eugene Schmitz (a former orchestra leader who was elected on the first successful labor union ticket in history).

Both books discuss in detail the governmental malfeasance that wound up costing so many San Franciscans their lives and displaced thousands of others. But Smith's text -- with its ground-level view and a narrative style that uses official reports and diary entries to crawl into the heads of the people who were directly involved -- provides the more poignant appraisal of San Francisco's dire lack of leadership. As he writes, through the eyes of acting chief Walter Cook: "He was also thinking as he surveyed this horrific scene what every fire-fighting specialist in the city would conclude: that it might be one of the greatest tragedies to befall the city that Dennis Sullivan would not be responding to the biggest alarm of his tenure." Smith's point, reiterated implicitly again and again, is worth noting, especially in the wake of the recent hurricanes that have devastated America's Southeast: It's people who put out fires and maintain order in a disaster, and it takes the right kind of people, properly prepared, to pull it off.

With the prescient Sullivan out of the picture, many of the front-line duties fell to the reputedly reckless Brig. Gen. Frederick Funston. Funston immediately dispatched his troops to guard the federal buildings around town, relied heavily on the strategy of dynamite to create firebreaks, and seemed to act with some reluctance on Schmitz's draconian order to shoot looters on sight. His is a controversial role in the four fire-charred days that followed the quake, and it's telling that although both books bill themselves as the definitive account of the real "story," Winchester and Smith differ greatly in their appraisals of Funston and Schmitz. Winchester writes that Funston was "just the right man for the job, some would argue," and also offers an oddly glowing portrayal of Schmitz as a mayor who rose to this particular occasion. Smith, on the other hand, provides a much fuller account of events following the quake, when Schmitz was convicted on extortion charges and removed from office.

But reading the two books together is a refreshing experience, mostly because these are not your average chroniclers of now-dusty history. In fact, perhaps it says something encouraging about the country's growing fixation on disasters -- natural or man-made -- that these accounts were penned not by classic historians, but by two different types of specialists: scientist and firefighter. Rather than treating the tale as pure story (or symbol), as a historian might, Smith and Winchester bring their respective areas of expertise to bear on every page.

And what, as residents of the Bay Area living here 100 years afterward, are we supposed to take away from the confusion and chaos that reigned in the days after the great quake? Smith addresses this topic in far greater detail than Winchester, who, for all his scientific acumen, displays an unfortunate tendency toward brushing aside thornier questions of policy and political accountability. Whereas Winchester provides a great deal of financial and geological analysis about the effects of another 8.25 quake, his discussion of preparedness doesn't get much deeper than stating that the city "has drawn up detailed response plans for dealing with many possible scenarios."

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