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On Trail of 1906 Quake's Victims

San Francisco historian is tracking down the unreported deaths from the 8.3 temblor and fire.

February 07, 2005|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — For 40 years, historian Gladys Cox Hansen has labored in solitary obscurity among the dusty documents and yellowed newspaper clippings. She's a death scholar of sorts, on a determined quest to honor forgotten victims of this city's defining natural disaster.

Hansen is compiling a first-ever register of those who died in the devastating 1906 earthquake and three-day firestorm that left much of this turn-of-the-century cultural and financial mecca in ruins, leveling 90% of the city's structures.

For years, the official number of deceased from the disaster was set by the city at 478 -- a figure widely accepted even though no list was ever compiled. Yet Hansen's research shows that the real toll is 3,000 or more. Many of the uncounted were immigrants whose deaths were ignored -- a sign, she says, of the era's bigoted politics and a government cover-up to downplay the quake's real damage.

At age 79, this petite woman with the strawberry-red hair listens closely to these ghosts of the past, the unremembered Italian longshoremen, Irish nannies and Chinese laborers -- hearing their voices rooting her on as she places names and faces to her growing record of the dead.

Her list started as a part-time project but eventually grew into an uncompromising passion. She considers the people on the list part of her family. "No one should be just left to disappear," she said. "Even if they find only your bones, your name on some ledger or some other tiny trace you once existed, people have the right to be remembered."

Hansen, the city's archivist emeritus and curator at the virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, has reopened a window on this city's history that's not Chamber of Commerce romantic but real. Its been lauded by other researchers, including state historian Kevin Starr and Gary Kurutz, curator of special collections for the California State Library, who calls Hansen "San Francisco's preeminent historian whose work on this subject is way ahead of others."

Now, for the first time, her project has finally been recognized by city officials here. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last month to raise the death toll in time for next year's centennial of the April 18, 1906, catastrophe. Hansen's tally stands at 3,000, but her research continues and a higher figure could be recognized by the supervisors by the time the centennial is commemorated in 2006.

"Even if we're 100 years late," said Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, who sponsored the resolution for the new death count, "this is about righting an old wrong."

Hansen's undertaking received attention thanks in part to the help of Bay Area novelist and screenwriter James Dalessandro, whose historical novel on the earthquake, "1906," helped reignite interest in the era following the book's publication last spring.

In 1996, Dalessandro was scouring local bookstores looking for background on the quake when he came across a copy of an unheralded book Hansen had co-authored seven years before: "Denial of Disaster: The Untold Story and Photographs of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906."

While the cover-up is alluded to in many histories, Hansen is among the first to offer real evidence. Her oversized book, filled with scores of vintage photographs, tells of how corrupt Mayor Eugene Schmitz plotted with a clique of investors, insurance executives and Southern Pacific Railroad tycoons to downplay the disaster damage and death toll, fearful that the true scope of the devastation would scare off any financing efforts to rebuild the city.

Indeed, early reports were dire. The April 18, 1906, edition of The Times noted that "uncounted bodies of dead men and women are lying in morgues and under unuplifted walls. It is believed that nearly 1,000 lives were lost. The number cannot fall far short of that, and it may prove to be much greater."

But the number did not rise, at least not officially.

To lessen the impact of front-page news stories nationwide, according to Hansen and others, officials even doctored photographs to show substituted images of buildings that had been destroyed by the earthquake and fire. Hansen also shows how early on in the disaster, with 378 bodies in the city's morgue, the medical examiner merely added 100 more to the total for believability and submitted that as the official count.

"From page one, looking at this book, a little voice spoke to me and said, 'Everything you think you knew about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is wrong,' " said the 56-year-old Dalessandro. "With all the fabrications and distortions, it became one of the biggest cover-ups of a disaster in American history."

Striking at 5:12 a.m., the magnitude 8.3 earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed more than 450 city blocks housing 29,000 buildings, including 37 national banks, two opera houses and rooming houses packed with immigrants in what is now Chinatown and the former slums south of Market Street.

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