Remembering the Deadliest US Earthquake

San Francisco residents watch from high up on Sacramento Street as fire rages in the city's lower portion following the April, 1906 earthquake.

Still remembered as one of the worst and deadliest natural disasters in US history, the city of San Francisco, California was left in ruins on this date in 1906 by a powerful earthquake and subsequent raging fire.

The quake struck at exactly 5:12:38 AM on Wednesday, April 18, 1906. The severe shaking lasted for about 30 seconds, followed by an eerie stillness which lasted only about 10 seconds before an even more violent shock continued for almost half a minute more. (The Richter Scale wouldn’t be developed for another 30 years, but modern estimates of the quake’s force range from 7.7 to 8.3 on that scale.)

Buildings all across the city crumbled and collapsed, especially in the city’s lower portions, much of which had been built upon acres and acres of fill along the bay’s edge, where “soil liquefaction” ran through the reclaimed land’s surface much like waves along water. The damage from the quake itself was bad enough, but even worse were the fires that raged for three days afterwards, sparked by gas mains broken by the upheaval.

When all was said and done, over 80% of San Francisco was in ruins, and it is estimated that over 3,000 people perished amidst the rubble and the flames. It remains the deadliest earthquake in US history. (For comparison, the 1964 Alaska quake, though much more powerful, resulted in a much lower death toll. The 1989 Bay Area quake, though it caused extensive damage, was neither as powerful nor deadly.)


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