A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice
Matthew J. Davenport’s The Longest Minute is the spellbinding true story of the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, and how a great earthquake sparked a devastating and preventable firestorm.
At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck San Francisco, catching most of the city asleep. For approximately one minute, shockwaves buckled streets, shattered water mains, collapsed buildings, crushed hundreds of residents to death and trapped many alive. Fires ignited and blazed through dry wooden ruins and grew into a firestorm. For the next three days, flames devoured collapsed ruins, killed trapped survivors, and nearly destroyed what was then the largest city in the American West.
Meticulously researched and gracefully written, The Longest Minute is both a harrowing chronicle of devastation and the portrait of a city’s resilience in the burning aftermath of greed and folly. Drawing on the letters and diaries and unpublished memoirs of survivors and previously unearthed archival records, Matthew Davenport combines history and science to tell the dramatic true story of one of the greatest disasters in American history.
Historian Davenport (First Over There) provides a terrifying and propulsive account of the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Drawing on hundreds of firsthand accounts, court transcripts, and official reports, Davenport outlines the treacherous blow-by-blow of the destruction caused by the 7.9 magnitude quake, which struck at 5:12 a.m. and caught most residents in their beds, as well as the three-day firestorm that followed, both of which combined killed more than 3,000 people and left a quarter million homeless. Ten percent of the U.S. Armed Forces played a role in the response, and more than 300,000 passengers were evacuated by train and ferry to refugee camps in surrounding communities. In what proved to be among the earliest of such partnerships, federal aid and private largesse combined to an unprecedented extent to help the hundreds of thousands of those in need. Davenport seamlessly weaves detailed technical explanations of city infrastructure (the failure of the water mains and the composition of buildings worsened the fire) into gut-churning scenes, often drawing from primary sources to harrowing effect ("Legs and arms were sticking out here and there to guide us," wrote one rescue worker of his efforts to uncover bodies from the rubble). It's a vivid and meticulous recounting of one of America's largest natural disasters.