To add to the horrors of the general situation and the general alarm of many people who ascribed the cause of the subterranean trouble to another convulsion of nature, explosions of sewer gas have ribboned and ribbed many streets. A Vesuvius in miniature was created by such an upheaval at Bryant and Eighth streets. Cobblestones were hurled twenty feet upward and dirt vomited out of the ground.
This situation added to the calamity, as it was feared the sewer gas would breed disease. Thousands were roaming the streets famishing for food and water and while supplies were coming in by the train loads the system of distribution was not in complete working order. Many thousands had not tasted food or water for two and three days.
They were on the verge of starvation. The flames were checked north of Telegraph hill, the western boundary being along Franklin street and California street southeast to Market street. The firemen checked the advance of flames by dynamiting two large residences and then backfiring. Many times before had the firemen made such an effort, but always previously had they met defeat.
A three-story lodging house at Fifth and Minna streets collapsed and over seventy-five dead bodies were taken out. There were at least fifty other dead bodies exposed. At least people were lost in the Cosmopolitan on Fourth street. The shot tower at First and Howard streets was gone. This landmark was built forty years ago. The Risdon Iron works were partially destroyed. The soldiers who rendered such heroic aid took the cue from General Funston. He had not slept. He was the real ruler of San Francisco. All the military tents available were set up in the Presidio and the troops were turned out of the barracks to bivouac on the ground.
In the shelter tents they placed first the sick, second the more delicate of the women, and third, the nursing mothers, and in the afternoon he ordered all the dead buried at once in a temporary cemetery in the Presidio grounds. The recovered bodies were carted about the city ahead of the flames.
Many lay in the city morgue until the fire reached that; then it was Portsmouth square until it grew too hot; afterwards they were taken to the Presidio. The condition of the bodies was becoming a great danger.
Yet the troops had no men to spare to dig graves, and the young and able bodied men were mainly fighting on the fire line or utterly exhausted. They did it willingly enough, but had they refused the troops on guard would have forced them. It was ruled that every man physically capable of handling a spade or a pick should dig for an hour. When the first shallow graves were ready the men, under the direction of the troops, lowered the bodies several in a grave, and a strange burial began.
The women gathered about crying; many of them knelt while a Catholic priest read the burial service and pronounced absolution. All the afternoon this went on.
Representatives of the city authorities took the names of as many of the dead as could be identified and the descriptions of the others. Many, of course, will never be identified. So confident were the authorities that they had the situation in control at the end of the third day that Mayor Schmitz issued the following proclamation:.
The only fear is that other fires may start should the people build fires in their stoves and I therefore warn all citizens not to build fires in their homes until the chimneys have been inspected and repaired properly. All citizens are urged to discountenance the building of fires.
I congratulate the citizens of San Francisco upon the fortitude they have displayed and I urge upon them the necessity of aiding the authorities in the work of relieving the destitute and suffering. For the relief of those persons who are encamped in the various sections of the city everything possible is being done. In Golden Gate park, where there are approximately , homeless persons, relief stations have been established. The Spring Valley Water Company has informed me that the Mission district will be supplied with water this afternoon, between 10, and 12, gallons daily being available.
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Lake Merced will be taken by the federal troops and that supply protected. In the early hours of the day the flames, which had raged for thirty-six hours, seemed to be checked. The darkness and the wind, which at times amounted to a gale, added fresh terrors to the situation. The authorities considered conditions so grave that it was decided to swear in immediately 1, special policemen armed with rifles furnished by the federal government.
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In the forenoon, when it was believed the fire had been checked, the full extent of the destitution and suffering of the people was seen for the first time in near perspective. While the whole city was burning there was no thought of food or shelter, death, injury, privation, or loss. The dead were left unburied and the living were left to find food and a place to sleep where they could.
On the morning of the third day, however, the indescribable destitution and suffering were borne in upon the authorities with crushing force. Dawn found a line of men, women, and children, numbering thousands, awaiting morsels of food at the street bakeries. The police and military were present in force, and each person was allowed only one loaf.
A big bakery was started early in the morning in the outskirts of the city, with the announcement that it would turn out 50, loaves of bread before night. The news spread and thousands of hungry persons crowded before its doors before the first deliveries were hot from the oven. Here again police and soldiers kept order and permitted each person to take only one loaf. The loaves were given out without cost. Mayor Schmitz took prompt and drastic steps to stop this extortion.
By his order all grocery and provision stores in the outlying districts which had escaped the flames were entered by the police and their goods confiscated. Next to the need for food there was a cry for water, which until Friday morning the authorities could not answer. Women and children who had comfortable, happy homes a few days before slept that night—if sleep came at all—on hay on the wharves, on the sand lots near North beach, some of them under the little tents made of sheeting, which poorly protected them from the chilling ocean winds.
The people in the parks were better provided in the matter of shelter, for they left their homes better prepared.
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The police on Friday opened up a bureau of registration to bring relatives together. As photographs are true to life, they also convey to the eye correct views of this vast destruction.
The work of burying the dead was begun Friday for the first time. Out at the Presidio soldiers pressed into service all men who came near and forced them to labor at burying the dead. So thick were the corpses piled up that they were becoming a menace, and early in the day the order was issued to bury them at any cost.
The soldiers were needed for other work, so, at the point of rifles, the citizens were compelled to take the work of burying. Some objected at first, but the troops stood no trifling, and every man who came in reach was forced to work at least one hour. Rich men who had never done such work labored by the side of the workingmen digging trenches in the sand for the sepulcher of those who fell in the awful calamity.
The Folsom street dock was turned into a temporary hospital, the harbor hospital being unable to accommodate all the injured who were brought there. About patients were stretched on the dock at one time. In the evening tugs conveyed them to Goat Island, where they were lodged in the hospital. The docks from Howard street to Folsom street had been saved, and the fire at this point was not permitted to creep farther east than Main street.
The work of clearing up the wrecked city has already begun at the water front in the business section of the town. A force of men were employed under the direction of the street department clearing up the debris and putting the streets in proper condition.
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It was impossible to secure a vehicle except at extortionate prices. The police and military seized teams wherever they required them, their wishes being enforced at revolver point if the owner proved indisposed to comply with the demands. Up and down the broad avenues of the parks the troops patrolled, keeping order.