Last known survivor of the 1906 SF quake dies

Reply Fri 6 Feb, 2009 06:27 am
Imagine all the history and change this guy witnessed in the last century...

He was working as a grocery bagger up until a week before he died.

Safe travels to you, Mr. Hamrol.


Herb Hamrol, the last survivor of the 1906 earthquake, has died. He was 106. (Kim Komenich / The Chronicle)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

(02-05) 19:50 PST San Francisco -- Herbert Heimie Hamrol was the last known survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, and right up until the minute he died today at the age of 106, he packed every moment as if it were his last.

Mr. Hamrol's still-crisp memories of the smoke and the ruin served as the only true time machine left for a catastrophe most people know only from ancient photographs. But that was only a part of what Mr. Hamrol brought to the plate when he woke up each morning at his home in Daly City.

He was also the oldest known grocery clerk in San Francisco, punching a clock until a week before he died at a local hospital of complications from pneumonia. And if you were lucky enough to talk with him, you would likely learn a thing or two.

"Don't spend every dime you get," he told a Chronicle reporter in 2003.

"Stay away from wild women."

"Wear a tie when you go to work, also a nice shirt."

And there was always the advice he offered year after year at the annual April 18 downtown observation of the quake and fire that rattled and burned San Francisco to ruin in 1906. Asked how he got to such an advanced age, he invariably gave a version of his answer in 2005: "Don't drink, or smoke, or take drugs."

As recently as 2000, there were 16 survivors at the annual quake commemoration, held at 5:12 a.m. at Lotta's Fountain to mark the exact moment the quake began. But last year, on the 102nd anniversary, Mr. Hamrol was the only survivor present.

Planners of the annual event now know of no survivors to invite to this year's event.

"I suppose this year we will all go down there and toast Herb Hamrol at 5:12 in the morning," said publicist Lee Housekeeper, who has helped organize the annual event for more than 25 years.

"This time, it will be for Herb."

Gladys Hansen, a historian who wrote a book on the 1906 earthquake and fire, believes there may still be some survivors. She noted that San Francisco had a population of more than 400,000 at the time of the quake and some, somewhere, must still be alive.

"Every day, I hear new stories," she said, "And I would not be surprised... maybe not in San Francisco, but somewhere in the area."

Last April, Mr. Hamrol showed up fully alert as always. He wore a baseball cap, chatted with the mayor and fire chief and kissed any lady who asked.

"There is no greater San Franciscan than Herb," Mayor Gavin Newsom told the crowd of 350.

Mr. Hamrol remembered little of the actual quake, being just 3 years old when it happened. But the nuggets he did recall became more important as the years rolled by and older survivors passed away.

"I remember my mother carrying me down the stairs," he said last spring. He also remembered staying in Golden Gate Park while smoke filled the skies and rubble lay heaped everywhere.

"We don't get an earthquake every day, so we celebrate the one we had," he added. "It was a beautiful earthquake."

Mr. Hamrol was born in San Francisco on January 10, 1903. After graduating from the 6th grade he took a job delivering meat for a butcher. He also worked as phone company clerk and food wholesaler before settling in as a clerk at Andronico's market on Irving Street in 1967.

"He was revered and respected by everyone here," said Andrea Fitzgerald, a manager at the store. "Young kids couldn't believe it at all when we told them how old he was. He was still amazingly sharp."

Mr. Hamrol's wife of 40 years, Cecilia, died in 1969. He always kept her picture in his room, and he told The Chronicle in 2003, "Every morning I say 'good morning' to her."

Mr. Hamrol's son, Bill Hamrol of Galt (Sacramento County), said his father believed if a person didn't have hobbies, he or she should continue to work.

"I believe that's what kept him alive - work," he said. "That, and the fact that he was one of the best dads there was. He loved his family and he loved his friends."

Mr. Hamrol is survived by another son in addition to Bill, Burt Hamrol of San Francisco; and five grandchildren. Services will be held Sunday at 2 p.m. at Salem Memorial Park, Colma.

Earthquake survivor Herbert Hamrol (center), 104, arrives at the 101st anniversary celebration of the 1906 earthquake at Lotta's Fountain in San Francisco. (PAUL CHINN / SFC)

Mayor Gavin Newsom chats with 105-year-old Herbert Hamrol at the ceremony at Lotta's Fountain to commemorate the 102nd anniversary of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Hamrol was 3 years old when the big one struck. (Paul Chinn / The Chronicle)

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