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Naked city

The global geology and personal tragedy behind the great quake of 1906 that leveled San Francisco

A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906
By Simon Winchester
HarperCollins, 462 pp., illustrated, $27.95

''The smell of baking bread, mingled with coffee, was in the air, as was the smoke of early cooking fires. The blue-uniformed policemen, slow and imperturbable, patrolled their allotted beats. The breeze was westerly but light. Dawn was unfolding quietly, serenely. All was perfect peace," writes best-selling author Simon Winchester in his new book, ''A Crack in the Edge of the World."

And then, at two seconds before 5:12 a.m., on April 18, 1906, outside the city of San Francisco, ''under the sea, just a short distance off the Golden Gate," the vibrations began, followed by the shock that was registered by almost every one of the 96 seismographs in the world.

''In those first few bewildering, sleep-fuddled, terrifying moments," he writes, ''scores upon scores of buildings, some grand and famed, most ordinary and unsung, crashed to the ground. . . . The miasma of brick dust tended at first to muffle the screams of the trapped and injured; and buildings, weakened and tottering, continued to fall, crushing people, horses, cattle, and any other living creatures that happened to be in the open, no matter that the quake itself, in a proper sense, was now over. . . . The whole world seemed to consist only of the stunned silence of the mob, the dust-laden darkness, the half-heard cries of pain, the crashing of masonry as cornices and chimneys and walls kept on falling, falling, falling."

Winchester arrives at this point in the next-to-last chapter of his book, after a narrative tour de force through more than 4,000 million years of geological history that takes him from the eastern edge of the North Atlantic tectonic plate in Iceland, which he had visited as a student of geology from Oxford University, to San Francisco, with stops along the way at sites of past earthquake activity and geologic interest, including Charleston, S.C.; New Madrid, Mo.; and Meers, Okla. The travelogue flows seamlessly into a social history of San Francisco and California and a geological history of the San Andreas Fault.

As in New Orleans, a century later, where the greatest damage and loss of life were caused not by Hurricane Katrina but by the flooding that followed it, so in San Francisco, it was not the earthquake but the resulting fires that wrought maximum destruction. While the city was destroyed physically, however, the social fabric held, in large part, Winchester believes, because of the leadership exhibited by two very different men, Mayor Eugene Schmitz, a violinist who had run the local musicians' union before being elected mayor, and Brigadier General Frederick Funston, who had earned his reputation for bloodthirsty resolution in the Philippines. Though he lacked the legal authority to do so, the mayor declared that looting ''was henceforward a capital offense." With Funston's full cooperation, Schmitz directed the soldiers of the Army's Pacific Division, who, with no war to fight overseas, were housed in the Presidio, to cordon off the city's ''burning areas and keep onlookers away," enforce a nighttime curfew, protect government buildings, and close down the saloons. The general, for his part, cabled the secretary of war in Washington for help -- and promptly received everything he had requested. Trains filled with soldiers and supplies were dispatched from Army bases from Texas to Pennsylvania. In the end, nearly every tent the Army owned and fully 10 percent of its active-duty soldiers were delivered to San Francisco.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster -- and as the story of the city's destruction was told and retold -- local boosters, railroad officials, insurance agents, and real estate magnates tried to attribute the worst of the destruction to human carelessness and error. Winchester will have none of this. It was the quake that snapped off the utility poles and toppled the chimneys, sending sparks flying onto wooden structures; it was the quake that fractured the city's cast-iron water pipes and mains, leaving the firemen without any resources to put out the spreading conflagration. The fires that burned for three days were ''essentially uncontrollable," Winchester writes. No amount of water, no armies of firefighters would have been able to put them out before they destroyed the city.

Without slighting the human suffering of the victims of earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters, and with full attention to the irreducible particularity of their pain, Winchester places their tragedies in an almost cosmic context. The earth is not a stable structure, he teaches us, but a living system. The pieces of the inhabitable crust on which we reside float like ''rafts of solid rock" on massive plates that are continually colliding, bouncing, folding into, and diving beneath one another. ''Earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis are all as inevitable a part of the earth's story as sunrise and sunset are a part of the quotidian routine, the only signal difference being the rhythm and the pitiless irregularity of their occurrence." All we can do is recognize the fragility of our planet and prepare for the worst.

As for California and the land and people along the San Andreas Fault, the probabilities are better than even that there will be a massive quake comparable to that of 1906 within the next three decades. ''The only true unknown," Winchester writes, ''is the precise year, month, day, and time."

David Nasaw is a professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His biography of Andrew Carnegie will be published next year.

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