Watch this entire Truly CA episode: The Damnedest, Finest Ruins by filmmaker James Dalessandro. (Running Time: 55:00)
On April 18, 1906, the San Andreas Fault slipped along a 300-mile stretch from Mendocino County to south of San Jose, devastating every town and city in its path. Within minutes, fifty-two fires broke out in San Francisco. Within three terrible days, San Francisco, the "Paris of the Pacific," was nearly destroyed.
The city's fire chief at the time, Dennis Sullivan, had battled with city officials for years to build a massive fire suppression system: San Francisco had burned down six previous times. The day before the earthquake struck, Mayor Eugene Schmitz, political boss Abe Reuf and all 18 members of the Board of Supervisors had found out they were about to be arrested in the biggest corruption probe in U.S. history, an investigation lead by the White House office of President Theodore Roosevelt.
The city leaders used the chaos and destruction to try to rehabilitate their civic image and emerge from the devastation as heroic leaders. Yet, their mismanagement continued in the restoration efforts. While the U.S. Navy and firefighters battled the fire, San Francisco's mayor ordered the U.S. Army to shoot suspected looters and to use dynamite blasts on wood frame buildings. Scores of innocent people were shot, and the dynamite started hundreds of fires. In the immediate aftermath, city officials set the death count at 478 when as many as 4,000 to 6,000 may have died.
The Damnedest, Finest Ruins uses restored silent film footage, rare and never-seen photographs, and interviews to unravel a century of lies that led to the total destruction of the jewel of the American West. Written and directed by James Dalessandro, author of the best-selling novel 1906, The Damnedest, Finest Ruins features narration by actor Peter Coyote along with the digitally re-mastered music of Enrico Caruso, who performed at San Francisco's Grand Opera House five hours before the disaster struck, barely escaping with his life.