SAN FRANCISCO — At 103 years old, Herbert Hamrol gets a lot of attention for being one of the oldest employees at the grocery store where he works.
"I've been there going on 68 years. Two days a week — and you wouldn't want to work for nicer people."
But this year his celebrity status has increased ten-fold, because he is one of a handful of survivors of the 1906 San Francisco quake, which killed thousands of people and nearly destroyed the city.
"As small as I was, I remember my mother carrying me down the stairs with her left arm as she held onto the banister," said Hamrol, trying to recall memories from 100 years ago this week.
Hamrol and his family lived downtown, where his father worked as a grocer and his mother took care of the children. He remembers the family having to pack up and leave for Chicago to stay with relatives after the quake. After just a few days in the Windy City, the family came back to the Bay Area.
His parents seldom spoke of the tragic day. "I think it was just too painful for them," he explained.
Like Hamrol, Violet Lyman was just three when the estimated 7.8 magnitude quake shook her house so hard it threw her uncle out of bed. Her family survived and managed to relocate, but she remembers how many others were not so lucky.
"It was tough because people had no homes, no food, no nothing," said Lyman.
The quake left more than 225,000 people homeless. Many of them lived in tent cities set up throughout the area.
Chaos and panic
Eight years old at the time, Chrissie Mortensen remembers the chaos and panic in the streets.
"People gathered their possessions, taking carts, or whatever they had, to move out to the park, or any place they could camp," recalled Mortensen, who was in third grade at the time.
Lyman’s family decided to leave the city. Although the quake didn't destroy her home, food was so scarce that her mother had to wait in line every day for rations distributed by the Navy.
One day an officer noticed her mother wearing a sailor cap and asked if anyone in the family was in the Navy. Her mom answered “yes,” and was told to pack up her things. The next day several officers moved the whole family up to Vallejo, where they remained.
Celeb status 100 years later
This year Lyman will participate in a 1906 quake anniversary event.
"It's taken me over 100 [years] to become famous!" she quips.
And a century later, Hamrol says he and other survivors are proud to call themselves native sons and daughters of San Francisco — a citythat went through one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
"I think it's a marvelous achievement that the city of San Francisco has done to come back from something like that," he declared.