SAN FRANCISCO — Gladys Hansen retired in 1992 from the San Francisco Main Library — but that didn't mean she stopped her work as a librarian.
That's because she has made it her goal in life to account fully for the number of people killed by the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake and ensuing firestorm. To accomplish this Hansen goes to work several days a week — at her own office in a Mission district warehouse — to research, catalog and respond to questions.
That may sound like a routine task, but for 40 years, it has been anything but that. A combination of a lack of identification because of the timing of the disaster, poor record keeping, and an unofficial cover-up of the extent of the disaster, have all conspired against an accurate accounting of the dead.
"I'm a librarian at heart,” she says from her own storage rooms, where her collection of index cards of names continues to grow and grow.
100 years later, and still counting
"For forty years I've watched it grow like a thermometer," said Hansen, explaining how the official casualty number from the quake has grown over the years.
"It reached 826, 910, 1000, 2000, you know, I kept counting [but] counting the numbers is not what I'm really after," explained Hansen. "I'm really after the people to recognize their names. To let them be a San Franciscan [who] was forgotten in 1906."
Typed on three-by-five cards are the names of individuals Hansen believes died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.
"These are some of the dead," she whispered while thumbing through the cards.
The card reads "ANNIE BAUMEISTER, confirmed dead by the U.S. Army."
On the next card "ANDREW BOTZBACH" is recognized. Botzbach was a bookkeeper at the Valencia Hotel, where it is believed at least 80 people were initially trapped by the quake, and later killed by the firestorm that swept through the city. Some are also believed to have drowned by burst water mains which flooded the collapsed hotel.
"PAULINE BUCK" lived and died at 424 Twenty Ninth Street.
Hansen has a card for "WILLIAM BURNIP" and one for "ALBERT JOHN BUSH."
For forty years Hansen has catalogued 120 drawers full of cards with names and information.
'Official' death count
The official death count released by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1907 claimed 478 people died in the disaster.
Plaques on display at exhibits throughout the city marking the centennial anniversary of the earthquake this month say that 3,000 people died in the quake and fires. But Hansen doesn't agree with either of those numbers.
"Today we're, I would say closer to 6,000 [dead]; five to six thousand," she estimated.
According to Hansen, there was a deliberate effort to minimize the scale of the disaster. Army brass and insurance executives, Southern Pacific Railroad tycoons and civic boosters all with interests in the booming city played down the damage and the death, she believes, to keep the money and investments coming in.
James Dalessandro, historian and author of "1906, a novel," said San Francisco owes a lot to Gladys Hansen.
"She's done an extraordinary service by uncovering a lot of lies and cover-ups in the disaster and in saying that the dead should be counted," said Dalessandro. "It gives us a more accurate portrayal of just how significant, just how enormous this disaster really was.”
Challenges along the way
It's been a difficult task and has become Hansen's life's work.
For instance, counting the dead in Chinatown has proven particularly challenging. It remains a mystery to this day why only a dozen Asian names appear on any lists of the dead given the destruction that the earthquake and fires brought to densely populated immigrant districts.
“You look at Chinatown, 500 people could have died in Chinatown,’ said Dalessandro. Hansen has tried repeatedly to account for the number of Chinese killed in the disaster, but information is scarce.
Just determining the parameters of her search were an issue when Hansen began her project — she needed a definition of what was considered "an earthquake death." The definition provided by medical authorities was someone who dies at the time of the quake, or within one year of the quake as a result of an injury received during the catastrophe.
That opened the door for Hansen to search death registrars, coroner’s books, newspapers, city directories, old maps and church journals for bits of information and leads. It is, in many ways, like doing detective work for the bureau of missing persons.
Recently the computer has helped Hansen’s project. Descendants have sent e-mails from as far away as Germany with information about lost relatives.
Many will remain nameless
"If I can get the name, I prefer it, but many will go nameless," said a resigned Hansen.
She explained that one of the inherent difficulties in identifying victims of the quake and fire that followed lays in the timing of the disaster.
"It was 5 o'clock in the morning when this earthquake occurred and then the fires came. People were leaving their houses without shoes on, [only] in night dress, and running into all kinds of things.… There's no way of tracing who they were."
In many instances, all she can depend on now are old family records or stories of lost loved ones. For instance, people who had extended family elsewhere, but who were never heard from again after the quake occurred.
"People just don't disappear unless there was a reason, and this reason was something that could not be helped," said Hansen.
'San Franciscan for a day'
Hansen may still be counting, but her efforts have paid off. On January 25, 2005, San Francisco Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution authored by Dalessandro and Hansen that set aside the 1907 official death count of 478.
And for Hansen, who doesn't get paid or sponsored for her work, says she feels a deep sense of reward.
“San Francisco at that time was a tourist city and we had people from throughout the world here," she said. "Many died here and, to me, if you cared enough about stopping in this city, we should recognize you as being a San Franciscan for a day, or a week, or whatever.”
Mike Mosher is an NBC News producer based out of the Burbank bureau.