San Francisco: April 18, 1906
Thena startled awake as her bed rattled beneath her. Outside her room she heard a frantic clamor. She stared into the darkness, trying to make sense of the tempest.
Long seconds passed, and the noise increased, as if a monstrous train thundered by just outside her hotel window. She stumbled out of bed, snatched her Bible from the night table, and opened the door.
The hotel hallway was full of the shouts and cries of bewildered guests. The approaching dawn barely penetrated the blackness, and frightened people hurried past, their faces made ghostly by candles. More staggered along in the dark.
Wearing only her nightgown, Thena moved into the stream of people and almost immediately ran into an overturned piece of furniture. She tumbled to the floor as pain shot through her shin. A man tripped over her leg and swore at her before moving off. She reached down and touched the wound, warm and slippery.
“Someone help me,” she whimpered, and after a pause, “Help me, now!”
But no one stopped. This can’t be happening. The wooden floor heaved and the wall smashed against her again and again. She felt like a rat being shaken by a terrier. All around her timber groaned, and she heard things thudding and smashing in rooms around her—books, lamps, chamber pots. Beds skittered across floors. In the distance were harder crashes—what sounded like masonry snapping and stonework falling.
Thena pushed herself to her feet and gasped in pain. People shoved past. Many called out piteously, and some shouted prayers or asked for forgiveness for the people of the city. Babies cried. Some people moved silently by while others clumped past wearing boots.
Thena waded through the dark with her hand groping the lurching wall. She stumbled forward until the wall under her right hand ended. Where was the lobby—to the right or straight? She guessed straight and continued as she strained to see in the meager light. Her bare foot kicked an overturned spittoon and she recoiled from the feel of the slimy wood floor.
An old woman’s voice called out not to be left behind. She pleaded again and then again, her voice fainter as Thena continued. A broken gas lamp hissed.
After what seemed like many long minutes of blundering through black corridors, Thena reached the hotel lobby. Pale light from the outside illuminated jagged glass on the floor, and the air was cloudy with dust. She saw movement in the street beyond, but the lobby seemed empty of people. The shaking and roar continued. She felt alone in this dying building.
Safety finally in view, she hobbled toward the glassless windows, arms out for balance. Pain flashed with every step, and she worried how she would get over the glass with bare feet. Halfway across the lobby, something hit her from behind, hard. She was bludgeoned to the floor as bricks and wood tumbled around her. She felt an intense pressure on her legs and a blinding pain, and she coughed on the dust.
The shaking stopped—thank God. Thena moaned and called out weakly, but her voice sounded muffled by the rubble around her body. Her hands were empty—the Bible was missing. “Help me!” she called out again, a little louder. The background roar was gone and she heard the distant sound of panicked voices on the street, vague and unfamiliar. She pushed to stand but couldn’t move whatever was on her legs, then called out again and held her breath for a reply.
Then she heard a faint shout outside, a single sharp syllable. “Fire!” Others picked up the call. The thought of slowly burning to death terrified her. She clawed for the locket around her neck—still there—and thought of the man who had given it to her. Would she see him again? Or her parents? She had so much to live for.
She coughed again on dust, or maybe smoke. The intense pain from her legs receded as she called out, “Help—I’m here!” She paused, then shouted again and strained against the crushing weight. Immoveable.
Thena mentally groped for what to do. And then she knew. Alone and trapped under rubble far from home, she began to pray. In her own inexperienced way and buried under pain, she prayed for help, for someone greater than her to do what she could not.