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Centennial anniversary celebration full of color, memories

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

By Angie Young

Special to South Valley Newspapers

San Francisco - During the recent events commemorating the centennial anniversary of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, the earth again was rocked - but this time, it was because of thousands of voices.

Before dawn last Tuesday, more than 5,000 celebrants flocked to Lotta's Fountain on Kearny Street for the annual tribute to those who died in the great temblor. People dressed in 1906 apparel and volunteers from the Red Cross greeted visitors, handing out whistles, flyers and cheer despite it being the wee hours of the morning. The weather even cooperated with dry skies.

Mayor Gavin Newsom shared the stage with the 11 elderly survivors; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; recording artist Tim Murphy; Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White; Police Chief Heather Fong; Annemarie Conroy, executive director of office of emergency services; and many other dignitaries. A huge clock nearby announced 5am; everyone watched it with apprehension, knowing that 100 years ago the earth shook violently at precisely 5:12am, sending shock waves of destruction throughout the state and beyond.

Organizer Taren Sapienza gave her opening remarks and introduced the special guests. Murphy sang the national anthem to the throngs in the crisp morning air while people jostled to get a better view. Ten seconds before the clock's black hands reached the 12-minute mark, everyone chimed in as they counted down the seconds, much like a New Year's Eve party.

Rumblings broke forth at the appointed time, but not from the earth. Thousands of voices rocked the streets with cheers as the clock read 12 after 5. The mood at the celebration was lighthearted, not foreboding. A moment of silence then followed, commemorating those who lost their lives during the massive shaker and subsequent fire. A wreath was placed respectfully on the fountain.

People strained to see the raising of the ladder by the San Francisco Fire Department. Ringing of church bells and sirens added to the cacophony as everyone watched with admiration as firefighters raced down the street in vintage fire trucks with riders decked out in period costume for the show.

Mayor Gavin Newsom then greeted everyone on national television, proudly speaking of how San Francisco rebuilt itself from the ashes. On an enormous billboard behind him, the words "San Francisco rising," with the image of a phoenix ascending above the Golden Gate Bridge, summed it up best.

Newsom then interviewed the survivors one by one on bended knee, eliciting unpredictable results. When he asked the youngest of the survivors, 99-year-old Norma Norwood, "How are you?" Norwood quipped, "Cold I have Gavin Newsom here to keep me warm."

The crowd applauded and the mayor was caught off guard, but he quickly recovered. Norwood continued, "I was the best of the earthquake. I was conceived and born inside a tent in Golden Gate Park. My parents had to snuggle to keep warm and when you snuggle, you have a baby." She then added, "I was raised by prostitutes I was called the 'earthquake baby,' but when I was 17 I didn't want to be called that anymore."

The eldest of the group, 109-year-old Chrissie Mortensen, shared her memories of the temblor and ensuing fire on that fateful morning in 1906.

"I remember the smell of smoke and seeing a cow running down California Street with its tail in the air," she said.

Another survivor, 103-year-old Harold Hamrol, told everyone the secret of longevity is working at a job for at least two days a week. The charming Hamrol, attired in a dapper Navy Blue suit, still works part time at Andronico's grocery store. The tribute wrapped up at Lotta's Fountain with the sleep-deprived but happy bunch singing a heartfelt rendition of "San Francisco," based on the 1936 movie classic with the same name.

San Franciscans Mark Tweedie, 42, and his friend Leo Carew III, 39, always attend the major events in the city, and said they were thrilled to be part of the 1906 earthquake and fire commemoration.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," Tweedie said. "My grandmother, Edna G. Steele, formerly Barney, was the youngest of five and was born in 1912. Her older siblings told stories of how the family had to stay in tents in Golden Gate Park.

"They moved from upper Market Street," he said. "People were torching their homes to collect insurance because the insurance companies didn't cover earthquake damage that's what burnt San Francisco to the ground."

The sun's rays peeked over the horizon, casting a luminous turquoise hue in the morning sky. Conroy's invitation rang out to the thousands, her words painting the celebratory attitude of a city that overcame the worst.

"Go out and have some fun! The bars open at 6. Raise a toast to the incredible city of San Francisco."

Angie Young is a free-lance writer based in Morgan Hill.

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