Click photo to enlarge
Parishioner Shirley Fernandez, of Fremont rings the bells at Mission San Jose in Fremont, Calif., at approximately 7:55 a.m. to commemorate the 140th anniversary of the 1868 Hayward Earthquake, Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2008. The event included a blessing, an introduction of descendants of the 1868 quake and talks about earthquake preparedness. (Bea Ahbeck/The Argus)

FREMONT — At 7:55 a.m. Tuesday, Mission San Jose's ringing bells marked the moment in 1868 when the earth shook for 40 seconds, leaving more than 30 people dead and inflicting property damage across the region. Nearly every building in Hayward was wrecked or destroyed, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The ceremony commemorating the 140th anniversary of the Hayward fault earthquake emphasized the urgency of learning from the magnitude 6.8 temblor in order to minimize devastation from future quakes. Calling for greater disaster preparedness, the ceremony blended history and science to jolt officials and the public into action.

The USGS calls the Hayward fault a "tectonic time bomb" that is overdue for a major earthquake, with a 31 percent likelihood of a magnitude 6.7 or greater quake in the next 30 years. The 140th anniversary is particularly ominous, speakers said, because the fault's earthquakes happen on average every 140 years.

The Hayward fault stretches from San Pablo Bay to south of Fremont near Milpitas.

Dolores Ferenz, Mission San Jose administrator, recounted how the church's roof caved in and adobe walls crumbled. Only a baptismal font and two statues survived the earthquake.

"We commemorate a tremendous earth-shaking moment," Andrew Galvan, curator at San Francisco's Mission Dolores and a descendant of Native American survivors of the earthquake, said Tuesday. "So, we look forward: How do we prepare to avoid the type of disaster that occurred in 1868, basically the type of disaster that affects the lives of all peoples?"

Suzette Kimball, associate director of the USGS, said the Hayward fault is particularly prone to producing a damaging quake because of its historic seismic patterns and location in the heart of the Bay Area.

The region's population density means the potential damage of a large earthquake could be greater than the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report from December 2007. As the most urbanized fault in the U.S., more than 2.4 million people live and 1.5 million people work within striking distance of the fault.

"I don't think people understand the Hayward fault because all the publicity goes to Loma Prieta and San Andreas," said John Brennan, whose great-granduncle survived the 1868 quake. "They're still building buildings on the fault line. What's the deal with that? Why do they allow developers to build on a fault line?"

Geologist Betsy Mathieson, a member of the state's Seismic Safety Commission, emphasized that building codes do not make structures "earthquake proof." She said the code is intended to prevent buildings from collapsing and killing people, but that the building may still be rendered unusable.

Only structures such as dams and nuclear power plants are designed to be truly "earthquake proof," Mathieson said.

Representing state Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, Jason Overman said the senator recently introduced a bill that requires more stringent seismic standards for homes. He said Corbett will soon hold hearings to investigate why $200 million of Proposition 1D funding earmarked to upgrade the seismic safety of schools has not been spent.

While the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake is often called "The Big One," Mathieson said the public has "no idea how strong the ground will shake" when an earthquake similar to the 1868 or 1906 quakes strikes. In particular, Mathieson said, the length of shaking will shock many. The 1906 San Francisco quake lasted more than a minute, while the 1989 Loma Prieta quake was just 15 seconds, she said.

Fremont Mayor Bob Wasserman, who was police chief during the 1989 quake, said the potential scope of damage means residents must be self-sufficient in a disaster.

"You are not going to get a lot of help in those first couple of days," he said.

He pointed to the fire department's Community Emergency Response Team program, which trains community members to respond to disasters when services such as 911 are inundated with the most pressing needs.

Harold Brooks, chief executive officer of the Bay Area chapter of the American Red Cross, said even a basic level of preparedness can help. He recommended that families make a disaster plan, prepare a kit of supplies and stay informed.

The ceremony at Mission San Jose kicked off a series of events organized by the USGS and the 1868 Hayward Earthquake Alliance. On Tuesday, 275,000 students and employees participated in an areawide earthquake drill. Richard McCarthy, executive director of the Seismic Safety Commission, said this drill, and a similar one involving 4 million people in Southern California next month, will provide test cases for implementing a statewide earthquake drill next year.

Today through Friday, more than 200 scientists are convening at Cal State East Bay to share recent earthquake research, with a free public forum on earthquake hazards and earthquake preparedness at 7 p.m. Thursday in the New University Union building, 25800 Carlos Bee Blvd., in Hayward.

Toward the end of Tuesday's ceremony, the Red Cross' Brooks reflected on his recent response to Hurricane Ike, when advanced warning allowed him to travel to Louisiana and prepare before the hurricane touched ground.

"What a luxury to have the opportunity to get our ducks in a row," he said. "Our time to get our ducks in a row is right now."