updated 4/18/2006 12:47:11 PM ET 2006-04-18T16:47:11

Sirens wailed through the city at 5:12 a.m. Tuesday as residents marked the moment 100 years earlier when the Great Quake struck, shattering the city and touching off fires that burned for days.

A handful of centenarians who survived that devastation were joined by thousands of residents for a moment of silence and a memorial ceremony to remember one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

“What an extraordinary example, the pioneering spirit that defines our past, I would argue defines our present, and gives me optimism of the future,” said Mayor Gavin Newsom. “San Francisco, a city of dreamers. And San Francisco, a city of doers.”

Participants echoed similar feelings.

“It doesn’t really feel like a party to me,” said Bob McMillan, 37, who walked to the memorial event early Tuesday with his wife and 2-year-old daughter. “There is a sense of the tragedy, but there is also that San Francisco optimism. It’s kind of like, ’We’re still standing.”’

Linda Cain, 52, joined the crowd to honor her late grandmother, Loretta O’Connor, who lived through the quake.

“Growing up she would talk about how this devastated her life,” Cain said. “She loved San Francisco very much and she passed that on to me.”

Most of the city’s 400,000 residents were still in bed when the magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906.

The foreshock sent people scrambling, and the main shock arrived with such fury that it flattened crowded rooming houses. The epicenter was a few miles offshore of the city, but it was felt as far away as Oregon and Nevada. In 28 seconds, it brought down the City Hall.

From cracked chimneys, broken gas lines and toppled chemical tanks, fires broke out and swept across the city, burning for days. Ruptured water pipes left firefighters helpless, while families carrying what they could fled to parks that had become makeshift morgues.

Debate over deaths
Historians say city officials, eager to bring people and commerce back to the city, radically underestimated the death toll. Researchers are still trying to settle on a number, but reliable estimates put the loss above 3,000, and possibly as high as 6,000. In any case, it ranks as one of the costliest disasters in U.S. history, a benchmark to which later calamities are compared.

According to a study released Monday, a repeat of that 1906 temblor would cause 1,800 to 3,400 deaths, damage more than 90,000 buildings, displace as many as 250,000 households and result in $150 billion in damage.

Communities up and down the San Andreas fault planned to commemorate the earthquake Tuesday. In Santa Rosa, where 119 of the 7,500 citizens were killed, 119 volunteers dressed in vintage garb would walk by candlelight behind a horse-drawn hearse to the cemetery where 15 earthquake victims were buried in a mass grave.

San Jose, which was also hard-hit, has staged a geology exhibit called “It’s Our Fault, Too.” At the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco, an artist sculpted a quivering San Francisco neighborhood in Jell-O.

Living on the edge
Historians generally agree on one point: that San Francisco will fall again in a future quake. But they disagree over whether people should love the city or leave it.

Philip L. Fradkin, author of “The Great Earthquake And Firestorms Of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself,” has chosen to make the Bay Area his home in spite of the threat.

Fradkin lives in Point Reyes Station, north of San Francisco. The San Andreas Fault, source of the magnitude-7.8 temblor, runs close by.

“San Francisco fell, and it will fall again,” Fradkin said. “And if we can’t deal with the realities of history, we’re lost.”

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