Grace Under Fire

As San Francisco burned, 100 years ago this month, a hardy band of men worked feverishly to save the city’s mint—and with it, the U.S. economy

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At the restoration groundbreaking last fall, Mayor Gavin Newsom called the Old Mint "the soul of San Francisco." Says Gilbert Castle, former executive director of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, "We’re saving the mint again."

Survivor Tales

Each year, in dwindling numbers, they gather on April 18 to celebrate San Francisco’s endurance, and their own. All but one are now centenarians. They rise before dawn and are driven in vintage cars to Lotta’s Fountain on Market and Kearny streets, the main meeting place on the day of the great ’06 earthquake. Police and fire engine sirens wail at 5:12 a.m., the moment that made them all part of history.

Only six survivors showed up last year, but twice as many are expected to appear at this year’s centennial event. The eldest will likely be Herbert Hamrol, 103, who still works two days a week stocking shelves at a San Francisco grocery store. The baby of the group is Norma Norwood, 99, an honorary member who proudly calls herself “a result of the quake,” having been conceived the night of the disaster in a refugee tent in Golden Gate Park. “My father said it was cold that night in the tent, so they snuggled to keep warm,” she says. “They didn’t want a baby; they had no money, but I came anyway. That’s what happens when you snuggle.”

It was their generation’s Katrina. A city of 400,000 was flattened by a wallop of nature. An estimated 3,000 people died as a direct or indirect result of the quake and the fires that followed. More than half of San Francisco’s residents were left homeless.

But tragedy plus time has made for a celebration. For the past three decades, tracked down and annually united by publicist Taren Sapienza, the group has met at the St. Francis Hotel. They stay in champagne-stocked suites and rise in darkness. In past years, hundreds of other San Franciscans, including the mayor, have also roused themselves early to pay these stalwarts homage. “In my heart, these survivors represent the city that San Francisco became,” says Sapienza. “They personally may not have poured the cement and pounded the nails, but they rebuilt the city.”

Frances Mae Duffy, 11 months old at the time of the quake, appreciates the tribute and is trying her best to, literally, live up to it. “I sure do hope I make it,” she said in late February, noting that she was planning to buy a new feathered hat for the occasion. “It’s a wonderful thing, it brings everybody together from every walk of life,” she said of the ceremony. “No matter how rich or poor you were, you got shook up just the same.”

Understandably, few direct recollections of the quake remain among those who gather from as far away as Oregon and Arizona. “I have a slight memory of being carried down the stairs by my mother,” says Hamrol. “She held me in her left arm and her right arm held on to the banister.”

Frances Duffy remembers being told that her mother sneaked out of the refugee park, braving police on the lookout for looters, to retrieve a wedding ring left on her kitchen sink while she washed dishes. She never found it.

Norwood’s family, who lost their house in the quake, moved into a flat on Fell Street. Her father was a saloonkeeper, and at age 6, she says she’d dance for longshoremen who threw nickels and pennies on the floor.


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