If you're going to have an earthquake, quarter past five in the morning is a great time because most people are safely tucked up in bed. For precisely the same reason quarter past five in the morning is not quite so perfect a time for an earthquake commemoration. But they hold such a ceremony every year in San Francisco at the precise moment the 1906 earthquake struck, and this year the commemoration was rather bigger and better attended than usual. I was there.
The ceremony took place at Lotta's Fountain, a golden gaudy survivor of the '06 quake in the heart of downtown district. As with many public ceremonies, the action was best viewed either from the press platform or at home on television. Those spectators who'd arrived really early got good positions beneath the mayor's platform, but the rest of us had to make do with standing in the street and trying to catch what we could through a sea of bobbing heads. A line of civic dignitaries stood beside the fountain, barely visible in front of a couple of dazzling spotlights. A vintage fire truck arrived, somewhere out of sight, and extended its 65 foot ladder high into the early morning darkness. A fireman nimbly nipped to the top of the ladder and unfurled the American flag so that everybody could join in with the national anthem, because that's obligatory at this sort of event. Some important people said something, but we couldn't quite hear what because the sound from the nearest loudspeakers was muffled and slightly distorted. The crowd, some of them in authentic 1906 costumes and headgear, waited patiently for the centennial moment to arrive.
At 5:12 precisely, after the laying of a floral wreath, a series of bells and sirens wailed out across the silent city. It was a genuinely eerie moment. Two veteran horse-drawn fire trucks galloped by, while at the foot of Market Street the grand old Ferry Building had been specially illuminated against the slowly brightening sky. The young Mayor (he's called Gavin, he's only 38 and he looks every inch the slicked-back gameshow host) milked the moment with charm, enthusiasm and appropriate reflection. He introduced the fire and police chiefs (both women) who gave stirring speeches about duty, heroism and pride, like you do on such occasions. Then, as the sky turned a deep cobalt blue, the Mayor interviewed the guests of honour - some of the 12 remaining survivors of the 1906 quake. These sprightly old men and women beamed out from the platform, revelling in recounting tales from when they were just two, three or even nine years old. The lady who stole the show may only have been 99, but she'd been conceived on Earthquake Day as her parents huddled together in the refugee shelters in Golden Gate Park. At least, that's what I discovered when I watched the ceremony later on TV - it was hard to tell at the time.
The party, such as it was, continued with singing and a bit of gratuitous banjo playing until just after six. The mayor thanked us for coming and the crowds started to disperse, picking up free emergency whistles and commemorative newspapers as they left. By now dawn was fast approaching and the sky was brightening fast, just as it had been when the quake struck at precisely this time 100 years earlier. Because, alas, nobody had taken Daylight Saving Time into account when planning the ceremony. The clocks went forward here a few weeks ago, so 5:12 wasn't really 5:12. And at twelve minutes past six, when the bells and sirens would have been rather more appropriate, everyone was instead rushing homeward or heading off to find breakfast before another day in the office.
There'll be a commemoration here again next year, though probably with fewer survivors in attendance and smaller crowds. But one day, rather than just remembering an old disaster, San Franciscans will have to face up to a new cataclysm. If they're lucky it will happen in the early hours of the morning when everybody's safely tucked up in bed. Just hopefully not early morning on April 18th, because you wouldn't want to be standing out in the middle of Market Street if a real earthquake struck, lacerated by countless shards of falling shattered glass or crushed by a toppling crane. In the meantime, readiness and remembrance will do just fine.