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Paul Coates -- Confidential File, April 17, 1959

April 17, 2009 |  2:00 pm

Confidential File

The Time the Earth Shook So Gaudily

Paul_coatesSome of us live a lifetime clinging to one moment.

John C. Crowe has.

Fifth-three years ago tomorrow, he was a lonely boy of 17, orphaned by the death of both parents. He was living in a tiny room on the third floor of a rooming house at 6th and Howard Streets in San Francisco.

At exactly 5:13 a.m. on April 18, 1906, John C. Crowe's moment came.

"Even though it was 53 years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday afternoon," he told me.

What he remembers is the San Francisco earthquake and fire, which killed countless scores (the exact number has never been tabulated) and leveled one of the world's great cities.

"The quake lasted one minute and 45 seconds," Mr. Crowe recalled. "But the fire went on for days.

April 17, 1959_0417, Mirror Cover "It's a funny thing," he continued, "people up in San Francisco never like to talk about the earthquake. They always refer to it as 'the big fire.' But you wouldn't have had the fire without the quake, I always say."

I asked Mr. Crowe to tell me about those minutes right after the temblor.

"Well as soon as my bed stopped going from wall to wall, I jumped up and ran out into the street in my nightshirt. There was this big fissure. I stumbled over it and fell flat on my face.

"It was sort of silly, I guess. The sun was just coming up and as I look back on it now it was a beautiful morning. But I didn't think of that then.

"I looked up at the Brunswick House, a four-story hotel right across the street. As I lay there, that huge building cracked right in the middle. It cracked so easy like in slow motion.

"But all of a sudden the top came down with a terrific crash. Plaster and lime rose 145 feet in the air. Just like an atomic bomb cloud.

April 17, 1959, Mafia "Of course," he added, "we didn't have atomic bombs in those days."

The dazed youth got to his feet and, confident that the world was still in one piece, ran back to his room and dressed.

"When I got back out on the street," he continued, "there was this little Irish cop standing in front of the Brunswick House. In a voice thick with brogue he told me, 'If you've got any heart in you, help get these people out.' "

Young John accepted an ax and, in the company of his neighbors, began hacking away at the debris.

"We could hear people moaning and screaming inside," he told me. "It was just one big chorus."

Smoke began pouring from the demolished building and seconds later it erupted in flames.

Mr. Crowe and the brave Irish cop and the others were forced to retreat, the screams and moans still pounding at their ears.

"Only four people got out alive. Four out of more than 100," Mr. Crowe said.

That's part of the tragedy John Crowe recalls.

April 17, 1959 Mafia But there was grim humor, too.

"What was one of the major problems the city faced?" I asked him.

"Drunks," he answered. "Yes sir, drunks. We didn't have any water. So folks drank whisky. People who'd never had a drop, some of them."

The Few Who Were There

Three years ago Mr. Crowe, a retired druggist who has lived in Los Angeles for the last 40 years, was a guest of the city of San Francisco. I asked him what he did to mark the earthquake's 50th anniversary.

"I went back to 6th and Howard Streets and I lay down in the street and I thought about that other morning."

Mr. Crowe got up to leave. "Would you do me a favor?" he asked. "If you write something about me, tell everybody that all of us old-time San Franciscans living here are going to get together tomorrow at MacArthur Park to remember the quake.

"I don't expect many. There aren't a lot of us left."