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Even for those born long after San Francisco's great 1906 earthquake and fire, it had become a habit to recall the warm, breezy conditions during that cataclysm. Looking out a window from her home in suburban Sunnyvale, Neta Lott remarked to her husband Byron that the Indian-summer evening of Oct. 17 seemed like "darned good earthquake weather." Moments later, the shaking and rolling began. Byron, an electrical engineer, fell to the floor. Neta tried to get up but remained pinned to her chair until she rolled onto the floor. "I sat under the desk and thought I would be buried," she recalled. "I thought, 'This is it. I'm going to die.' "

To the north in Oakland, auto mechanic Richard Reynolds glanced at the traffic on the double-decker I-880 freeway across the street and urged a friend not to drive to night school until after the rush hour. Minutes later, Reynolds felt "a ripple." Then a neighbor screamed a warning. He ran out of his shop to find "the whole goddam ground lifting up." He grabbed a telephone pole as the sidewalk buckled beneath his feet, and looked up at a horrifying sight. A mile-long section of the freeway's upper deck began to heave, then collapsed onto the lower roadway, flattening cars as if they were beer cans. "It just slid. It didn't fall. It just slid," said Reynolds. "You couldn't see nothing but dust. Then people came out of the dust." But not many. Dozens of cars were crushed in the concrete sandwich. Officials hoped, against all odds, that most carried only one person. A mile or so away, engineer Bruce Stephan was driving home on the upper deck of the Bay Bridge. He gripped the steering wheel hard as the car bounced up and down, then plunged toward the water. A 50-ft. piece of roadway had broken off and fallen onto the lower deck, carrying him with it. "Janice, we are going to die!" he shouted to his passenger. But something caught the car, and they were able to crawl out the windows to safety. Don Laviletta, riding his motorcycle on the upper deck, described how the roadway bulged and rippled toward him "like bumper cars -- only you could die in this game." The driver of one car, in fact, was killed in the collapse.

In San Francisco's yuppified Marina district, Emily Hudson was startled by the swinging of a chandelier, which struck the ceiling, then fell to the floor of her apartment. Her three-story building, with 18 apartments, cracked, splintered and toppled forward. "I could hear two women trapped in the apartment below me screaming, then I heard a voice yelling, 'Are you okay?' " the stockbroker's assistant recalled. Shortly after a neighbor pulled her out of a smashed window into air filled with gas fumes, she heard three deafening explosions. Then she saw a "horrible, huge wall of flame." Before the long night was over, most of an adjacent block containing ten buildings was incinerated by gas-fed flames that shot 50 ft. into the sky.

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RICHARD BAUM, political scientist at UCLA and one of the signatories of an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao calling for the release of dissident Liu Xiaobo who was detained after organizing a call for democracy

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