“You ask me to say what I saw and what I did during the terrible days which witnessed the destruction of San Francisco? Well, there have been many accounts of my so-called adventures published in the American papers, and most of them have not been quite correct.” So began one of the most widely read firsthand accounts of the greatest natural disaster ever to befall a North American city. The words were those of the world’s greatest tenor, Enrico Caruso, who along with the entire traveling company of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, survived the devastating earthquake and fire that struck San Francisco on this day in 1906.
The previous evening had been the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera Company’s San Francisco engagement. Caruso—already a worldwide sensation—had sung the part of Don José in Bizet’s Carmen at the Mission Opera House. He went to bed that night feeling pleased about his performance. “But what an awakening!” he wrote in the account published later that spring in London’s The Sketch. “I wake up about 5 o’clock, feeling my bed rocking as though I am in a ship on the ocean….I get up and go to the window, raise the shade and look out. And what I see makes me tremble with fear. I see the buildings toppling over, big pieces of masonry falling, and from the street below I hear the cries and screams of men and women and children.”
The Palace Hotel, where Caruso and many others in the company were staying, would collapse by late afternoon, but not before all of its guests managed to escape safely. Caruso—or, rather, his unbelievably devoted valet—even managed to remove the bulk of his luggage, which included 54 steamer trunks containing, among other things, some 50 self-portraits. “My valet, brave fellow that he is, goes back and bundles all my things into trunks and drags them down six flights of stairs and out into the open one by one.” That same valet would eventually find a horse and cart to carry the great Caruso and his many belongings to the waterfront Ferry Building—no mean accomplishment on a day when tens of thousands were attempting to escape the fires ravaging the city.
“We pass terrible scenes on the way: buildings in ruins, and everywhere there seems to be smoke and dust. The driver seems in no hurry, which makes me impatient at times, for I am longing to return to New York, where I know I shall find a ship to take me to my beautiful Italy and my wife and my little boys.” By nightfall, Caruso was across the bay in Oakland and boarding a train headed east—news that reached anxious New Yorkers the following day.