1906: One Family's Story

By Tom Ferenz

April 18, 2006

Thomas Stephen Ferenz (son of Walter Stephen Ferenz, son of George Constance Ferenz, son of Teodor and Domicella Ferenz).

At 5:12 a.m. 100 years ago today, my Ferenz family was suddenly thrust about at their tenement flat at 12th and Market St. in San Francisco. My 15-year-old grandfather remembered his bed hopping and dancing about the room, and my great aunt, who still lives, though barely now, remembers the plaster falling off the walls. She remembers wondering how her mother got dressed so quickly, and she remembers wondering where all the men had got off to in her family. She remembers being told to get out of the building by "the men" who said the building was likely to collapse. And, she remembers being told to stand on the curbside by the white sewing machine and wait until her mother returned. That apparently lasted for hours. I still think poignantly about her standing by the curbside, almost five years old, waiting obediently for her mother to return, while the chaos of the city went on around her.My suddenly homeless immigrant Polish family somehow made it up to higher ground with their few saved possessions and watched the city burn. My great aunt remembers the embers falling from the sky.

For eight months they camped in Precita Park and then, thanks to the forward thinking of some, they got to live in earthquake refugee shacks that the city provided. Somehow, through someone's good graces, two of the larger shacks were hauled up to the top of Bernal Heights hill. My family lived there afterwards until my great-grandparents died in the late 1930's and early 1940's. The shacks still remain and are lovingly tended by the current owner. They are featured in a Bernal Heights earthquake commemoration this weekend.

Today I not only give due honor and respect to my family but to all those who lost their lives or their homes and livelihoods that day. I also realize and celebrate the fact that I exist because of the generosity of those who constructed the refugee earthquake shacks. Because my family lived a charmed life on Bernal Heights in those little shacks, we kept up our Polish connections; my grandparents met because of our wonderful life there including its happy Polish dances in the city. And they had my father, and he met my mother and so, here am I, a direct result of a family who survived the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906!  I live because of the generosity of an almost destroyed city. Even more amazing is I've just learned this in the last couple of years and I especially thank the people in the city who have labored tirelessly to preserve and honor the memories of San Franciscans, past and present. They have helped my history come alive for me and my family.

Instead of taking the day off and hanging around the city anonymously to participate in the Centennial activities, I decided to stay here at school and tell my story to my students in the hopes that they remember and pass on the memories of this day. If you have time today, mention the significance of this day to your students and remind them about earthquake preparedness. It'll do us all good!