Italian opera star Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), considered by many to be the greatest operatic tenor of all time, was in San Francisco performing the role of Don José in Bizet’s opera Carmen on the evening before the earthquake struck. His account of the experience first appeared in The Sketch, published in London, with illustrations drawn by Caruso. It was reprinted in the July 1906 edition of The Theatre magazine.
I was stopping at the [Palace] Hotel, where many of my fellow-artists were staying, and very comfortable it was. I had a room on the fifth floor, and on Tuesday evening, the night before the great catastrophe, I went to bed feeling very contented. I had sung in “Carmen” that night … .
But what an awakening! … on the Wednesday morning early I wake up about 5 o’clock, feeling my bed rocking as though I am in a ship on the ocean, and for a moment I think I am dreaming… Then, as the rocking continues, 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 ….
I remain speechless, thinking I am in some dreadful nightmare, and for something like forty seconds I stand there, while the buildings fall and my room still rocks like a boat on the sea. And during that forty seconds I think of forty thousand different things. All that I have ever done in my life passes before me… .
Then I gather my faculties together and call for my valet. He comes rushing in quite cool, and, without any tremor in his voice, says: "It is nothing." But all the same he advises me to dress quickly and go into the open, lest the hotel fall and crush us to powder. By this time the plaster on the ceiling has fallen in a great shower, covering the bed and the carpet and the furniture, and I, too, begin to think it is time to "get busy."
… I make my way to Union Square, where… my valet succeeds in getting a man with a cart, who says he will take us to the Oakland Ferry for a certain sum, and we agree to his terms. We pile the luggage into the cart and climb in after it, and the man whips up his horse and we start. We pass terrible scenes on the way: buildings in ruins, and everywhere there seems to be smoke and dust.