Shake, rattle and roar: Firefighter-writer Smith (A Song for Mary, 1999, etc.) chronicles the conflagration that followed the great San Francisco quake.
“This town,” warned San Francisco fire chief Dennis Sullivan, “is in an earthquake belt. One of these fine mornings we will get a shake that will put this little water system out, and then we’ll have a fire.” Sullivan had long agitated for the improvement of an aging cistern system, but money for such renovation always disappeared somewhere inside the corrupt mayor’s office. The chief was one of the first firefighters put out of commission in the earthquake of April 18, 1906, and many other firefighters were killed or injured in the battle to contain the great fire that followed the quake, fueled by broken gas mains and feeding on the predominantly wooden-frame architecture of the city. (As Smith writes, America led the world in annual fire losses at the time “and continues this appalling average today,” with fire-related costs something like six times greater than those of Europe.) In the end, the San Francisco blaze was “bigger than any metropolitan fire in history,” killing more than 3,000 people, destroying 28,188 buildings and leaving 200,000 people homeless. In his vivid narrative, Smith highlights unsung firefighters and some of the more-or-less ordinary people who rose to necessity and became, for just that moment, great heroes. One such man, a naval officer named Freeman, was never properly acknowledged for his work in battling fires on the San Francisco wharves and piers, and Smith’s encomium is fitting, particularly given the tragic dénouement of Freeman’s story. Smith turns up much of interest, including reports of atrocities committed by the military during the blaze and a tally of the small number of insurance companies that actually paid what they owed to their policyholders.
A secondary but readable adjunct to Philip Fradkin’s broader-ranging Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 (not reviewed).