Last survivor of 1906 San Francisco earthquake dies at 109

Image 1 of 2

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU/AP) — The last survivor of the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 has died, a relative confirmed Monday.

William A. "Bill" Del Monte died at a retirement home in nearby Marin County on Monday. He was 11 days shy of his 110th birthday. His niece, Janette Barroca of San Francisco confirmed his death of natural causes.

He'd been doing "great for 109-years-old," Barroca said Monday.

"I can't believe that I'm still here, " Del Monte was fond of saying. For years, he joined other survivors in annual quake remembrance ceremonies at Lotta's Fountain in the Financial District.

He was only three-months old at the time of the earthquake, but he knew his parent's stories.

"My mother grabbed the tablecloth, put me in it, and carried me out with the tablecloth," he recounted, laughing in a previous interview with KTVU. 

His family fled on the ferry to the East Bay, where they lived several years.

He recalled riding his bike to where Oakland Airport is now, and swimming in the Bay.

"He was the sharpest guy I've ever known, " Del Monte's friend and publicist Lee Housekeeper told KTVU.

"He used to say, 'Let me take my glasses off for the cameras, so I look younger," joked Housekeeper, who has organized the annual anniversary event for more than 20 years.

Even without Del Monte, the ceremonies will continue.

"In the end, after the last survivor, now Bill, leaves us, in the end San Francisco is the survivor, and we'll continue," said Housekeeper.  

Del Monte did not have children, but leaves behind many relatives, who marvel at how he rose before dawn, even in his hundreds, to attend the commemoration.

"He was very generous about it. He understood who he was and what the role was," relative Richard Del Monte told KTVU. "He was really good about doing it for history's sake and for the city. He understood that he lived in interesting times."

"Live and enjoy it, you're only on this Earth so long, " William Del Monte sometimes said, "so enjoy it while you can."

His father had opened the famous Fior d'Italia on Broadway in 1886 and it was destroyed in the quake but reopened in a tent not long after. By 1915 the Italian restaurant was prospering again, according to a 2011 San Francisco Chronicle story.

Del Monte attended San Francisco schools and after graduation went to work briefly for his father at his North Beach restaurant. But even in his teens he was interested in playing the stock market. And he was good at it. By 1929 at age 23, he was worth a million dollars, according to the San Francisco Chronicle story.

He lost the money but around the same time he gained a wife: a knockout known as Vera Minetti. They eloped to Reno in 1935 and they were married for 57 years until she died. They never had children. While his true passion was playing the stocks, he also ran a San Francisco Bay Area theater for years, according to published reports.

Del Monte's death leaves a void in the city's history.

Ruth Newman was the oldest remaining survivor of the earthquake before her death last summer. She was 113.

Newman was 4 years old when the quake struck in the early morning of April 18, 1906. She died July 29 at her home in Pebble Beach, California, the coastal town where she and her late husband moved to after living in nearby Pacific Grove, said her daughter Beverly Dodds.

Newman never attended the annual earthquake commemorations events in San Francisco, which include gatherings at Lotta's Fountain in downtown before dawn, because she preferred to sleep in rather than rise before dawn to attend, her daughter said.

But Del Monte did over the years. In 2010 he was the only survivor who made it to Lotta's Fountain, riding in the back of the city's big black, 1930 Lincoln convertible.

More than 1,000 people were killed in the earthquake and fires. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, measurements of the quake have ranged from magnitude 7.7 to 8.3.

"The common thread I would draw with all of these survivors is they had a unique, dry wry sense of humor as anyone would have at being so rudely tossed out of bed at 5:11 in the morning," said organizer Lee Houskeeper. "But none could compare to Bill. He had absolutely the sharpest mind of anybody I've ever known. A sharp mind, a sharp sense of humor and he was a complete flirt. My guess is there are a lot of heartbroken nurses out there today."

This April 18th, when the memorial wreath is laid, it will be dedicated to Del Monte.

He died peacefully, his family says, and was in good health until just the last few months.