They saw crumbling and fire-gutted buildings on screen in the award-winning documentary film “The Damnedest Finest Ruins.”
The film’s producer and editor, James Dalessandro, was present to show the hourlong film, which included restored silent-film footage and rare photographs and interviews.
The opening scenes were film footage of what San Francisco was like just days before the April 18, 1906, disaster — scenes recorded by an early Edison motion-picture camera mounted at the front of a street car heading down Market Street toward the Ferry Building.
“This film footage, by the Mills brothers, amateur photographers, was discovered only days before the centennial of the earthquake and fire was observed in April 2006,” Dalessandro reported.
Other facts and observations included in the film and Dalessandro’s remarks:
• Enrico Caruso, the legendary Italian tenor, gave a performance at the San Francisco Opera House the night before the earthquake. “He finished the concert exactly at midnight, five hours and 12 seconds before the quake hit,” Dalessandro reported. Caruso had to leave his room in the Palace Hotel when it was gutted by fire several days after the earthquake and headed up Nob Hill to the Fairmont for lodging.
• There were heroes and villains associated with the disaster, according to Dalessandro. The hero was San Francisco Fire Chief Dennis Sullivan, who before the fire was pushing for the development of a fire-suppression system that included reservoirs and cisterns holding emergency water. Sullivan was mortally injured in the earthquake when falling debris landed on the firehouse where he was sleeping. He died of his injuries 18 hours later. His ideas were later incorporated into the unique San Francisco fire facilities.
• The villain, according to Dalessandro, was Army Brig. Gen. Frederick Funston, commander of the Presidio, who sent untrained and unsupervised troops into the heart of the destruction area with instructions to shoot any possible looters. A number of innocent people were killed. Funston was also overzealous in ordering so many major structures and homes destroyed by dynamite in an effort to curb the spread of the fire. Many of those structures could have been saved, Dalessandro said.
• The U.S. Navy did a better job, he said, with sailors and Marines working tirelessly to save the docks so important to the evacuation of refugees.
• The fire, which destroyed nearly every building south of Market Street, spread as far west as Van Ness Avenue, where a determined effort on the broad thoroughfare stopped the flames.
• San Francisco’s population before the earthquake and fire was estimated at 435,000, the largest city on the West Coast. After the earthquake and fire, about 75,000 of those who had left the city never returned, providing new residents in scores of California towns, including Tracy.
• Contact Sam Matthews at email@example.com or 830-4234.