When 106-year-old Daly City resident Herbert Hamrol died in early 2009, he was the last known survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake – until his obituary inspired about 15 more survivors to come forward.
Two of them attended the city’s annual earthquake commemoration event on April 18 that year, and now, event organizers are looking for more potentially unknown survivors who might be interested in this year’s gathering.
Every year, hundreds of people meet at Lotta’s fountain on Market Street at 5:11 a.m. to observe a minute of silence and drape a wreath on the fountain.
They then go to 20th Street to repaint the fire hydrant that saved the churches in the Mission District, and end the morning with a Bloody Mary breakfast at the restaurant Lefty O’Doul’s.
“They had been wanting to do it for a long time and kept meaning to go,” event organizer Lee Houskeeper said of the two survivors who attended in 2009, 108-year-old Rose Cliver and 104-year-old Bill DelMonte. “They had an incredible time and had an opportunity to go to dinner the night before the event and talk about all the history and their families for three or four hours.”
DelMonte, who lives in Sausalito, plans to attend this year, Houskeeper said. Cliver is still deciding if she wants to make the trip from her home in Santa Rosa.
Houskeeper has spent the last 25 years keeping track of earthquake survivors and looking for new ones.
He knows of about 10 survivors scattered across the country, and every year, he searches for more – anyone born between Monterey and the Oregon border prior to April 18, 1906.
“There’s a certain sense of optimism that is in every (survivor) that I’ve met,” Houskeeper said. “Sort of a ‘We can do anything’ attitude. They rebuilt the city from ashes. They have an incredible sense of humor.”
Proceeds from the Lefty O’Doul’s breakfast are used to fly in survivors from outside the Bay Area who want to attend the ceremony.
They are given rooms in the Westin St. Francis hotel and encouraged to participate any way they can, whether it’s speaking before the crowd or waving at spectators from a window in the Palace Hotel.
Survivors who can’t attend are also asked to get in touch so San Franciscans will have an accurate count and contact information for their families, Houskeeper said.
Because the city of San Francisco does not keep official records of the survivors and their families, Houskeeper has had to find creative ways to track them.
He started with records from the Golden Gate Bride, Highway and Transportation District, which did an earthquake ferry ride and kept records of the families until 1999, and then worked with journalists who received calls about other survivors.
The current earthquake commemoration ceremony was inspired by a now-defunct fraternal order called the South of Market Boys, who began placing wreaths at Lotta’s fountain in 1919.
Lotta’s fountain was a popular gathering place and outdoor concert site in the early 20th century, Houskeeper said. After the earthquake, it became a focal point of city.
“People would say, ‘Go check on mom and then meet me at Lotta’s fountain,'” Houskeeper said. “Or they would put up notes there looking for so-and-so.”
After the trips to Lotta’s fountain and the Mission District, the group will gather for a Bloody Mary breakfast at 6:45 a.m. at Lefty O’Doul’s restaurant off Union Square.
Tickets to the breakfast cost $20 each.
Houskeeper hopes this year’s event will be especially well attended because of the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.
Bay Area residents who traveled abroad this year for earthquake relief efforts will speak at the breakfast, and emergency personnel will give information about disaster preparedness.
Attendees will also sing and watch movies at the restaurant.
“It gives you a feeling in this disconnected age that we can do this, and as neighbors, we will,” Houskeeper said of emergency response.
Anyone with information about earthquake survivors is asked to call Houskeeper at (415) 777-4700 or (415) 282-3729.