The Greatest Fire Alarm In American History

After 100 years, Dennis Smith finds the answer to the question of who saved San Francisco: The firefighters.


Earthquakes are often described as thunderous and frightening, like the sound of an approaching locomotive if you are standing in the middle of the tracks. The ground not only moves from east to west, but also from north to south and in heaving circles. The earthquake of April 18, 1906, began to...


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Earthquakes are often described as thunderous and frightening, like the sound of an approaching locomotive if you are standing in the middle of the tracks. The ground not only moves from east to west, but also from north to south and in heaving circles. The earthquake of April 18, 1906, began to roar at 5:12 on a clear Wednesday morning, just at sunrise. It was one of the most severe shakings in our history, estimated to be an 8.0 on today’s Richter scale, and it rumbled on for about 45 full seconds, pushing flues away from their stove connections, pulling gas lines from their connections, displacing pot-bellied stoves, oil lamps and coal heaters – all of which resulted in fires that immediately added to the chaos that was befalling the city.

The huge and famous dome of City Hall, the city’s symbol of power, slid from its steel underpinning, leaving an eerie skeleton behind. In the fire department’s dispatching office, 556 of the 600 battery acid bottles crashed to the floor, rendering the telegraph dispatching system and 424 alarm boxes useless and without power of any kind. Still, people ran through the streets with rampant cries of fire – 52 fires were reported in the first minutes after the quake. Some of the doors in the firehouses were cramped shut because of the shifting of buildings during the earthquake, and in some companies the horses escaped and ran loose. Still, the firefighters managed in every instance to respond to the calls for help. The fire department of San Francisco – its 584 men, 38 steam engines, 10 hook and ladders, eight chemical pumpers, 39 hose wagons, and 323 horses – was brought, in the first minute after the shaking, to the absolute limit of its capacity to operate.

And, also in that first minute, perhaps the greatest tragedy of all occurred, for one of the most respected fire chiefs in the United States was rendered unconscious and would die four days later. It was an event that would have terrible consequences for the gem city of the Pacific.

Just a few hours before the earthquake, there was a third-alarm fire in a cannery building on Bay and Mason streets, and about 20% of the fire companies were used until just after midnight. After he left that fire scene, Dennis Sullivan, the fire chief, had gone to rest into an adjoining bedroom of his apartment on the top floor of Chemical 3’s Bush Street firehouse so that he would not disturb his wife, Maggie. Next to the firehouse stood the California Hotel, which had a tower, or cupola, that fell over during the shaking. As it fell, it crashed through the roof of the firehouse and through all four floors to the basement, taking the fire chief’s wife with it. Maggie, though, survived, for she was tucked tightly into her bed, which had miraculously landed on its four feet four stories below.

Sullivan was not blessed with such good fortune that night, and when he awoke to the earthquake he immediately ran to his wife. Not seeing the hole in the floor within the dust, he fell through it to the basement, landing next to the boiler and a displaced steam pipe spewing scalding air, water and steam. The chief was severely burned, and in his traumatized state found his way to front of the building where scores of people were digging for him. His consciousness, however, failed, and he never understood that he missed the greatest fire alarm in our nation’s history, a three-day event that burned through 28,188 buildings, flattened 522 blocks and took more than 3,000 lives. That Sullivan was taken out of command was great bad luck for San Francisco.

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