Eric Risberg  /  AP
Herbert Hamrol, right, a 102-year-old shelf stocker and survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, is greeted Thursday by an admirer at a market in San Francisco.
updated 4/17/2005 7:14:13 PM ET 2005-04-17T23:14:13

Herbert Hamrol has one enduring memory of the devastating 1906 earthquake that razed much of San Francisco — the feeling of his mother’s arm.

“She carried me in her left arm and used her right hand to grab the stair rail,” said the 102-year-old Hamrol, who was 3 when his family fled a shaking South of Market apartment that was eventually destroyed by fire. “That’s all I remember.”

Finding people who experienced the Great Quake of April 18, 1906, might seem like a formidable job. But organizers of Monday’s 99th anniversary commemoration know of at least 60 remaining survivors and expect more to surface in time for next year’s centennial.

“They are coming out of the woodwork,” said Taren Sapienza, who for the last 29 years has arranged the annual observance that culminates with a dawn wreath-laying at Lotta’s Fountain, a landmark that served as a meeting point for those trying to find families and friends after the disaster.

At least 15 survivors planned to attend a supper at Johns Grill, while about 10 took the Westin St. Francis Hotel up on its offer of a free room for the night.

Fateful breakfast revisited
The hotel, one of the few structures that survived the quake, plans to serve the same breakfast Monday that was on the menu when the earthquake struck at 5:13 a.m. — chilled rhubarb, rice griddle cakes, southern hominy and scrambled eggs.

“Even though these survivors may have little or no memory of the earth shaking,” Sapienza said, “they represent the spirit of San Francisco that rebuilt the city that was almost destroyed.”

Only a decade ago, Sapienza said she would easily get up to 50 survivors joining her by the fountain. Now most of the remaining ones are too frail to participate.

Death toll to be revised
For its part, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has agreed to raise the official death toll from the earthquake, which for decades has stood at 478, to include the thousands of victims overlooked in the city’s haste to discount the earthquake’s impact.

Arnold Genthe  /  AP file
In this photo, people on Sacramento Street watch smoke rise from fires after the earthquake in San Francisco on April 18, 1906. San Francisco supervisors plan to raise the official death toll from the earthquake and its attendant fires. City archivist Gladys Hansen says the original tally of fatalities is grossly underestimated because it didn't include residents of Chinatown or looters who were shot by police.
The number is expected to fall somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 people, and will be made official before next year’s centennial.

Although he has spent his whole life in San Francisco, Hamrol only attended his first earthquake anniversary three years ago. His parents, immigrants from Poland, never talked about the disaster when he was growing up. After losing their home, his family moved to Chicago — but returned after only three days because his mother missed San Francisco.

Hamrol didn’t even know the city still observed the occasion until he heard about it from a co-worker at the grocery store where he still works two days a week.

“I am glad to be in San Francisco,” said Hamrol, a widower with two sons aged 69 and 67. “It is good to me.”

Seismologists seek answers to questions
Just as publicity surrounding next year’s centennial has produced new survivors, it has also motivated scientists to try to answer questions about the earthquake.

Mary Lou Zoback, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, said a group is working on a computer model to simulate the way the quake shook the city — and hope to produce an animated film that would let people see what happened.

“After a disaster, there is a high level of awareness and motivation to prepare for the next one, but that only lasts about six months,” Zoback said. “What the centennial does is give us a window of opportunity to motivate the public without having a disaster.”

Other centennial observances in the works include museum exhibits, musical tributes, reenactments and earthquake safety workshops.

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