Good Friday Earthquake at Turnagain Arm. Compliments of Wikimedia Commons
Half a century ago in south-central Alaska, the earth shook, and shook, rumbled, and undulated until it broke apart, large segments sliding into the waters of Cook Inlet in Anchorage, taking houses, cars, trees, and anything else on the land down with it. Much of the rest of the world was put on tsunami watch.
What follows here is a compilation of memories from people directly affected by the event that has become known as The Great Alaska(n) Earthquake, The Good Friday Earthquake, the 1964 Alaska Earthquake, and, by many Alaskans, simply The Big One.
Every attempt has been made to retain the authentic voice of the writers as they vividly recall details from 50 years ago, experiencing the emotions all over again. Some feelings stay with us forever.
In The Day the Earth Broke, JEANNE FOLLETT presents us with a detailed, dynamic description explaining the geological process that resulted in the destructive 9.2 earthquake with effects felt around the world:
The Day the Earth Broke
It is said that when disaster strikes, our brains process the information differently than usual. Rather than a fluid, coherent video of occurring events, we see disaster as a series of quick photographic stills. In recalling those images, they are viewed much like the small comic pages of sketched characters that, when the pages are ruffled, seem to be moving.
Good Friday, March 27, 1964, late afternoon.
Seventy-five miles from Anchorage, Alaska, in Prince William Sound, and eighteen miles deep, the earth’s crust had had enough. A massive plate of rock called the Pacific Plate had been pushing against the North American Plate for tens of thousands of years, moving between two and three inches a year. Unable to rise on top of the North American Plate, it was instead forcing its way under it, causing a fault line where the two plates fractured to allow the movement. The crust was compressed, folded, and warped, causing some surface areas to sink and others to be shoved upwards.
At 5:26 p.m., all hell broke loose.
But this wasn’t just another earthquake. This one wasn’t going to be content knocking jars of strawberry and raspberry jam off the shelves in the grocery store, making a fine mess for the stock boy to clean up. This quake had loftier ambitions. This quake was a killer on the loose.
With rock crushing against rock only eighteen miles deep, the energy released by these forces was the equivalent of detonating a billion TONS of TNT. For long minutes, the earth battled against itself, rupturing along a five hundred mile length, and shaking 50,000 square miles of the crust.
Waves of seismic energy roiled the surface of the earth in coastal south-central Alaska on the afternoon of Good Friday, March 27, 1964. Leafless trees lashed violently back and forth. Fourteen-story buildings—the tallest in Anchorage—swayed far enough for water to slosh out of toilets, while at the same time their concrete facades shattered and cracked. Drivers pulled off roads to check for flat tires, then found they couldn’t stand upright on the heaving ground.
Slabs of pre-cast concrete fell off multi-story buildings, crashing to the sidewalks below, flattening cars within their deadly reach. Windows broke, spewing shattered glass in all directions. Steel railroad rails twisted and corkscrewed.
As bad as things were on the surface of the earth, far more malevolent forces were at work beneath it. Along the western coast of Anchorage, from downtown along the northern rim of the city above Ship Creek and the railroad yards, south past Bootlegger’s Cove and West Chester Creek, past the Forest Park golf course and country club, and through the expensive homes of the well-to-do with grand views of Cook Inlet and the mountains across the gray silty waters, past the modern ranch-style homes in the planned subdivisions of Turnagain by the Sea and Susitna View, a little-known transformation was occurring, one that would wreak all kinds of havoc on the city and its residents.
Beneath the office buildings and homes, the ground is wet sandy soil and clay. To geologists and seismologists, it is known as the Bootlegger’s Cove formation. When movement is added to the mix, the sand, clay and water churn in an unstable form called liquefaction. It is not a substance on which buildings and homes and paved streets should be built.
Beneath the surface of Alaska’s seas, bays, fjords, inlets, and arms, huge masses of land shifted and sank, or thrust upwards, in some places as much as 30 feet. Massive piles of rock, disturbed by the violence of the earth’s tectonic plates battling for supremacy, cascaded into undersea chasms, displacing water in prodigious amounts.
That water had to go somewhere.
To read all of Jeanne’s gripping personal experience, the following link takes you to her story published last year in Growing Up Anchorage: https://growingupanchorage.com/2013/03/rockin-and-rollin-alaskan-style/
JANA ARIANE NELSON was a young mother, living in a small trailer behind North Star Fuel, on the corner of the Old Seward Highway and Tudor Road.
When the roar of the earthquake cut off our electricity and everything started violently shaking, I picked up my children, Naomi, a year and a half, and David, 6 months, one under each arm and tried to stand in the porch doorway. Since it was the day after my birthday, my husband and I had planned to go out that evening, and I was wearing a dress with a tight skirt and 3” heels. It became obvious that we couldn’t stay where we were, so I walked down the few steps to the snow and ice covered parking lot that separated the small group of trailers from Kitty’s Café on the Seward Highway.
I promptly fell. We were unhurt but the kids were screaming and a fissure was opening and closing beneath the trailers. I got up somehow and walked all the way to the Café while the ground was still shaking. I could see grown men hanging onto their cars on the side of the road and wondered why they wouldn’t come help me. I guess adrenalin does amazing things since I weighed a little over 100 pounds and the kids in my arms totaled probably more than a quarter of that.
Once we were safely inside and someone could watch my children, I went back to the trailer and found that the fire had gone out in the oil heater. I turned off the oil, and propane. Fortunately I had been cooking pork chops in an electric frying pan and not on the gas range. Everything was a complete mess and I collected clothes and baby supplies so we could go to my parents for a few days.
Read Jana’s complete story, previously posted here: https://growingupanchorage.com/2012/05/9-2-the-great-alaskan-earthquake/
MIKE HOPKINS says, It was fun to think about again as I sat here in Falcon Cove, OR, looking out at the ocean and thinking about the tsunami that everyone says will come someday. I realized I was waiting for one back in 1964 that never came.
Before I bought this place about 20 years ago, I had a geologist survey the land. He was my same age and still lives in the same house he did as a kid in a low area of Seaside. It was flooded up to the second floor from the tidal wave our Alaska earthquake sent his way, not ours. We had a big laugh at the irony of our connection.
In 1964, I was in my second year at Alaska Methodist University. We lived along Westchester Lagoon by Bootlegger’s Cove. I had just gotten home from school to relax a bit before my family returned when the house began to pitch and roll. It emptied all the kitchen cabinets, first one side and then the other. Then the contents were pitched back and forth from one end of the kitchen to the other.
I made it through the debris to the front door and hung on. The wild ride lasted about four minutes and then it stopped. Except for the debris, there was no real damage. Outside I could still see telephone poles flipping back like match sticks, otherwise everything seemed back to normal. I was used to earthquakes. This felt bigger than usual, but the extent of the damage wasn’t immediately obvious.
A school mate, Jackie Reese, lived about six blocks away, closer to the water, so I headed my usual way up N Street to the park strip that ran between 9th and 10th. Nothing seemed amiss until I was turning onto 10th and saw the new six story Four Seasons Apartment across the park laying almost flat on its side. It was such a shock that I nearly drove into an earthquake fissure that had opened across the road. This was way bigger than I had thought. Jackie was OK. There was no one at the collapsed apartment as I made my way back to our house. Fortunately, it had not been quite finished and was unoccupied.
Our whole family was OK. We had no utilities, so we headed out to my dad’s office at the Defense Communication System on Elmendorf AFB. He still had electricity. Sometime during the night we all decided we just wanted to be home, so we headed back. A few blocks from home, at 15th and L Street (the road to Spenard) we were stopped by military personnel and told we could not go any further.
They were concerned about the possibility of tidal waves. My dad was a former Army officer but it did not seem to help. Finally, they agreed they could not keep us from going home. For the rest of the night we slept in our own beds, taking turns at the front window watching for the tidal wave that never came. I remember our view of the Inlet was better than the day before. The land closer to the water had dropped.
The next morning a friend and I headed out early to survey the damage and see what we could do to help. The jumbled mess with very few people downtown created an eerie scene. We put on our ski helmets and poked around in back of the JC Penney building. The front had collapsed. We wanted to help but had no official capacity. It was dark and still inside.
Apparently, others had already made sure everyone was out so we headed to the residential Turnagain area along the Inlet behind the High School and across the Lagoon from where we lived. It was really scary. Much of the neighborhood had slid toward the Inlet and down several hundred feet. It was a jumble of mud and houses. It was also pretty well evacuated. We comforted a pet dog that came out of a house that had collapsed halfway down the hill but there was nothing much we could do.
I was struck with how calm and resilient people seemed to be. There was no panic. I don’t remember any rash of looting that you might expect elsewhere in a city. By that evening we had a house full of kids again. They were my sister’s friends; most of whom I assume had fared worse than we had.
Now that I think about it, they were all boys and were usually there most nights before the earthquake as well. Maybe it had more to do with my sister. I like to think it was an Alaska thing. In Alaska, especially in the bush, and now in the city as well, everyone was always welcome to come in out of the cold. No one had to take anything. We all shared what we had.
It would be hard to say that things got back to normal soon but we learned to live with it. The aftershocks were frequent and as severe as most earthquakes anyone will ever experience. We soon began to sleep through them at night rather than jump up and run for cover. After all, when everything was shaking, where could you go?
The evening before the quake I went to see Anchorage Community Theatre’s production of “Our Town” at Gould Hall on the AMU campus. Photos show the play’s advertising banner over a crumbly 4th Ave and environs.
On the half-century anniversary of earthquake evening this year, we’re attending a fund-raiser for Anchorage Community Theatre, featuring highlights from their productions over the past 50 years. The folks who hold the rights to “Our Town” wouldn’t authorize a small selection to be extracted and performed, saying it must be the whole production, or nothing. Even so, that should be a fun evening. I even remember the general location where I sat in the audience 50 years ago.
Oh, yes…I’ll precede the evening event by skiing all day at Alyeska, where I was in 1964. Who’d ever have thought….?!
Yes, I know we gathered for dinner with your folks, Jana. The two households pooled the dinner-makings. But I can’t remember if your folks came down to our house, or we went up to yours. I keep searching the recesses of my brain….
SUE NORRIS HAMILTON, AHS 1961, went by Sue Hamilton at AMU 1961-1965 – memories of the ’64 quake:
I was in the dorm (2nd floor) at AMU that afternoon, resting up for our evening performance of “Our Town.” When I realized this wasn’t a “normal” quake, I threw some clothes on and headed for the stairs, stopping next door to yell at Robin to leave her tape recorder and come on!
We staggered down the stairs, clinging to the railings to keep from losing our footing and being flung down the stairs head first. We made it out the door and stood on the grass lawn watching 30- and 40-foot trees whipping from side to side, the tops touching the ground and snapping back to the other side. Then, we stood, waiting for the ground swells to roll toward us so we could jump over them as they rolled on by. We were really more excited than scared until it became clear just how serious it really was. Lance Petersen, my beau at the time, had been downtown and came back to tell us that he had seen the destruction there, including JC Penny’s front facade on the ground.
The next several hours and days were very stressful and busy. AMU was a designated shelter and our dorm housed several people evacuated from Turnagain. The very next day I went to the main building and up to the library to see the damage. We had spent spring break completely cataloging the shelves. The books were now all on the floor in piles! By the time classes opened again in a week, the library was back up and running fully, thanks to many volunteers.
The other thing that affected me most due to the quake was that the next month, on April 26, the Governor and his people wanted to review the total damage done in Valdez so the Air Guard flew them to Valdez that afternoon. My dad, Lt. Col. Tom Norris, Sr., was the pilot.
After dropping the Governor and his people off, the flight crew refueled and started the return flight to Anchorage. They didn’t make it! The plane went down into the bay shortly after takeoff. Along with my father, we lost the Com. General of the AK National Guard, the copilot, and the engineer. All together there were 21 children orphaned by that crash and I was the oldest at 20. So the State of Alaska lost some really great men that day.
DOREEN DUNNIGAN DONALD
I was married and lived out on Campbell Airstrip Road with a one-year-old daughter. I had just come home from work when the ground started rumbling. The noise was very eerie up against the mountains.
We just grabbed things in hopes of less damage and the worst was the pot of beans cooking on the stove. We had beans everywhere for a while. My parents and sister and her family all lived in Spenard. My sister’s house was just a couple blocks from the Turnagain area that slid into Cook Inlet, so she really “rode the waves” of the quake.
They all came out to our home near the mountains when they could gather up. We had water and a generator and could function. My husband had a home construction business and had just finished a home across KFQD Road (now Northern Lights Blvd) from what is now Earthquake Park. The home was not damaged but, because the land in that area was deemed unstable, we could not sell it. So “out of state” geologists that came to Anchorage to survey land and damage, rented the “unsafe” home for a year before declaring the area safe!
The most dramatic images we captured were at commercial construction sites around town: JC Penney’s Department Store where the front wall panels fell on cars and the street around the building; the new construction of Alaska Sales and Service; the multi-story apartment building behind the old Providence Hospital that collapsed down to about one story of debris; West High School damage of the second floor that left it a one-story building; and the whole east end of 4th Avenue where the businesses became “basements.”
I worked for National Bank of Alaska and managed the Airport Branch. I had left work before the control tower was totaled and some of the airport businesses were damaged. Years later, my husband built the new control tower, still in use now.
I moved into the Spenard Branch of the bank for a short time after the quake. The week after the BIG shake, we experienced another large quake. I was selling travelers checks to a customer who was “getting the heck out of Alaska” when the shaking started. He ran out the front door and I, along with the other employees, ran out the back door. I stood next to my boss, saying, “I sure hope the guy comes back. He had the Travelers Checks and I had NO money.”
When we all went back inside, he was there. I thanked him and told him he was smart to get out NOW!
Those are just a few of the many old stories I tell when people find out we lived thru the BIG ONE! It is the one experience that people our age know about and always ask when they find out we lived in Anchorage for 40-plus years.
KATHLEEN DUNNE WILSON
On Good Friday morning of 1964 I was dressing my 9 month old daughter while my husband debated what to do with his day off. While I gave our apartment a thorough spring cleaning, he decided to go to JC Penny’s first to buy slacks. Next he came home to soak in the tub a good long while before playing with the baby until they both fell asleep and I moved her to her crib.
If he’d been in Penney’s at the time of the quake, where the slabs fell off the sides of the building, or in a filled bathtub, the outcome may have been much different and I could have been alone with our infant.
As it was, I spent the day cleaning the bathroom, bedroom and kitchen and all the windows before I mopped and waxed myself into a corner to read a paperback Agatha Christie murder mystery while the floors dried. Frank had just bought a full 36 piece set of glassware. Since we had no room in the cupboards, he had lined them up along the top of the kitchen cabinets.
I looked up when I heard those glasses moving against each other in time to see the cupboard doors opening and the wall opposite me appear to be coming at me. Our baby began screaming as the print of a guardian angel fell on her and I tried to cross over the buckling floor.
Our apartment was one of two on the second floor of an old building on Thompson Street and my first thought was that the old building was collapsing. The building was built many years before by Elmo Strain who had made us promise not to do anything to upgrade or change anything. I thought this was because doing anything to the ancient building might make it fall down.
Now, I grabbed the baby and wobbled across the even wobblier floor. Out the window, I saw the tops of the trees in the forest across the street hitting the ground and then bending all the way over to hit the ground in the opposite direction! It was so unbelievable my mind could not comprehend what was happening and I froze.
My husband was pushing us from behind, out the door, to the top of the stairs. Then he grabbed the baby when I hesitated to jump. The stairs were rocking and rolling and wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to find purchase and I could see the fire extinguisher had come off the wall and was bouncing all over the stairs. Finally, Frank pushed me and I tumbled all the way down where he picked me up and got us into our car.
The car was swaying back and forth. We just looked at each other, grateful that we’d made it to the car. We noticed the couple who lived in the apartment next to us were alongside us in their swaying car. And then it stopped…we couldn’t move…I really don’t think the word “earthquake” had yet even crossed our minds. We were in shock!
We stayed in the car until my father’s car came squealing and screeching alongside. He’d rushed to make sure we were okay. He’d been working construction, building the new Travel Lodge on Third Avenue and told us the partial chimney had fallen on a coworker’s legs.
We all went upstairs to find that the apartment was a disaster. Everything in the kitchen had fallen, mingled on the linoleum floor….a mixture of Crisco, maple syrup and pickles with everything else from cupboards and fridge. And we had no water! Dad took us to his house where we stayed during the next week. The neighbors moved in also and we all slept next to each other on the floor for several days until utilities were restored.
Mom had a big freezer that she’d recently filled with a brand new product of the day: packages of frozen loaves of bread. We ate so much bread it came out of our ears and everyone shared an earthquake story. My husband’s best friend lived on a high floor of the Mt .McKinley building. When he and his wife made it out to the parking lot, he grabbed a light pole and hung on. He refused to ever return to his apartment. Shortly thereafter they moved to Arkansas, where he said everything was on the first floor!
I worked in the State Courthouse on 4th Avenue. A long crack ran diagonally through the building after the quake. Our offices kept coat racks with empty hangars on them and if those hangars started rattling we immediately evacuated the building. When I had jury duty, we all swapped quake tales in the long hours of waiting to be assigned to courtrooms….and prayed we’d never have to experience another one as momentous as the Good Friday Earthquake of ‘64.
I remember one other thing. We had a friend who bragged that you could bluff your way into any situation if you looked like you belonged there. After the earthquake everyone heard through the radio that we were not to go out on the streets unless for official reasons. He took a clipboard and walked all around Anchorage and was never stopped. It turned out many of the pictures he took were used by the media. And we never heard the end of it!
I was talking on the phone with Roy, who lived a little more than a mile from us when it happened: the Great Alaska EARTHQUAKE.
I said to Roy, “Oh a little quake” and he said, “I’ll call you back.”
Then it struck big at our house, a few seconds after hitting Roy’s. I went outside to see what had happened. Several others also exited their houses, but no one said a word. There was nothing to say, no words to express. Everything was completely silent; birds didn’t sing, dogs didn’t bark. One dog stood motionless, stunned, with his tail between his legs. It was a stillness that I had never heard! Even the electricity, in the telephone wires, was silent.
I went back inside. Stunned like the dog with his tail between his legs, I controlled everything, doing what needed to be done. We did have house damage but it was minor compared to others.
We lived close to the Inlet not far from West Anchorage High School, which is now only one floor instead of two, and knew how dangerous it could be if a strong earthquake struck. I knew Anchorage was built on the ancient glacial silt deposit known as Bootlegger Cove clay.
The primary tremors are weak trembling movements, causing little or no damage; the secondary quakes have strong jerking, jolting effects, which cause furniture and other household items to be displaced or destroyed and might cause minor structural ruin; the third movement is like the ocean swelling with waves maybe 50 feet or so and then sinking. This causes serious structural damage, destroying highways, buildings and even towns. Valdez was destroyed by the tsunami that followed.
Generally earthquakes last considerably less than a minute. This quake lasted between 4 and 4½ minutes. A very strong earthquake measures about 8 on the Richter scale, but this one scaled 9.2, the second strongest ever recorded, the strongest being in Chile, May 22, 1960, logged at 9.5! For more information on the Richter Scale, see http://www.geo.mtu.edu/UPSeis/intensity.html
After one minute I thought it would soon come to an end, but instead it continually got worse and worse and worse and worse, feeling all three waves! The roar was like a freight train thundering by. After about three minutes of unimaginable ocean waves on land, I began to wonder if I would slide into the inlet on this Bootlegger Cove clay and disappear like many Romans did 2000 years ago in Pompeii as Vesuvius engulfed them.
Some of the Turnagain area was swept into the Inlet. This was unfortunate for a particular insurance company, which had to pay for a sports car destroyed in the Big One, even though that person had no earthquake insurance. He told the insurance company a house fell on his car, which was the truth. The cover of Life Magazine’s April 1964 issue shows the picture of his sports car under the bathroom of a house. This home belonged to one of my father’s teachers. [ed note: Tom’s father was Glenn Norton, principal of North Star Elementary School]
At the dinner table, looking out their picture window and enjoying supper, they saw their neighbor’s house slide toward the Inlet and within seconds their house followed!
A friend of mine was driving in the Anchorage city limits and abruptly determined he had a flat tire. As he started to turn off the road he looked into his rear view mirror and saw the car behind him suddenly sink out of sight into a fissure. Then he realized he did not have a flat tire!
Finally, I feared failing a physiology class following the Quake. The morning after, I went to AMU to check my diabetes experiment and discovered both mice, the control specimen and the injected one, had died. Even though my experiment was incomplete the Professor gave me a better than acceptable mark!
I will never forget this once in a life time tragedy. There are no descriptions to define what happened on that day fifty years ago. This experience was so overwhelming, that one has to realize the power of nature and how helpless the human race is when confronted by such supreme forces and unknowns.
March 27, 1964, was like any crisp cool Alaskan day at this time of year. It was Good Friday, so people were hustling about getting ready for Easter dinner and the Easter bunny because it was a day off from work.
My roommate Margo Cook and I had been to the market and purchased groceries for guests that would be coming for Easter dinner. By this time, we were tired and ready to get back to our apartment at 1200 “L,” a 14-story structure now called Inlet Towers.
As we entered the building, there was a sudden boom and a shaking! Of course, we waited a minute before getting on the elevator when the shaking continued. By this time, we knew it was an earthquake and stayed off the elevator.
People were running outside and screaming. Being good California earthquake-trained gals, we went to the doors, arms full of sacks and boxes of groceries, and stood there.
By this time, the place was shaking pretty hard. We could look out the door and see the ground waves that came from two directions, coming together, colliding. That’s when the bad shaking occurred, making the cars in the parking lot shake up and down.
The floor began separating from the entrance and we no longer straddled it. After what seemed an eternity, the shaking stopped. We went to the car and put the groceries in it. Another teacher friend living in the apartment house joined us.
We didn’t know it was as bad as it was and drove to check on a friend down by the Inlet. She was panicked! Her place was a mess. Her son was on his way home from skiing at Alyeska and her husband worked in town.
We picked a few things up from the floor to clean up until we realized it was hopeless. Syrups, catsup, food were all mixed together with glass and other debris.
Terry Mondhan, a local shoe salesman and neighbor, joined us. By now our friend’s husband and son were home.
As we contemplated what to do, a radio announcer came by with a loudspeaker on her car, telling us a tsunami was coming and to get out. The family jumped into their car and we jumped into ours. Their car wouldn’t start, so all seven of us, plus one big dog, water, and cans of soda piled into my Nash Rambler. I drove with a dog slurping down my back and a couple good-sized people sitting next to me.
We headed east toward the mountains, directed by the National Guard and other military. Some roads were impassable, so they were at nearly every corner.
I taught at Lake Otis Elementary School and remembered Charley Jett’s family who had recently moved out of their old house and into a new one. Their new house was across the street from Lake Otis School, so we went there. The house was all lit up, since Charley, a local banker, was always ready for the weather with generators. I knew the family because their son was in my class at school.
They invited us in. After a delicious turkey dinner, they took us to the vacant house, intact although without heat or electricity. East Anchorage wasn’t hit as hard as West Anchorage since the ground there was mostly solid rock and not clay.
The adventures began as we tried to notify our families in the “lower 48” that we were okay. Communication lines were down, making this impossible, so we searched for other friends in Anchorage.
We had a radio that told us the tsunami had subsided and to stay put wherever we were because there was much damage and roads were not good. We learned that for ourselves the next day when we tried to go downtown.
There was no water or heat in the vacant house. We found a lamp with a wick and the Jetts had set us up with a cot, blankets, and other supplies. Eventually, the electric company arrived and gave us both light and heat. We had plenty of food in the trunk of the car. It had been cold enough to keep it from spoiling.
Soon other friends joined us with their little dog. We had food, a place to stay, and were able to let our families “Outside” know we were all right.
Our apartment house was blocked by the National Guard with guns at the ready. They wouldn’t even let us go back to get sleeping bags or warm clothing.
As you can imagine, there are more adventures, but I’m to keep this short. I told you the human interest more than the actual earthquake and after quakes to let you know what some of us did when we couldn’t go back to our homes.
Even though some of us weren’t in Alaska when the Quake hit, we still remember exactly where we were and have vivid memories surrounding it:
When the earthquake hit, I was lucky enough to be in Seattle, working as a Field Engineer for IBM. Family communications had been strained for a while; hence I didn’t know Mom was in the hospital.
Just prior to the earthquake, Don Chin (of Don’s Green Apple) came to visit her. Shortly after he got out of the hospital elevator, the earthquake hit, and the elevator fell several stories, but Don was spared. On the South side of 5th Avenue, Mom’s partner and bookkeeper was sitting in her car. When the shaking started, a concrete slab, a façade on the face of JC Penney’s, fell. Alice was not spared.
Several years earlier Mom retired from dancing. She had worked as an entertainer at the Last Chance Club since 1954, saving enough money to open a club of her own. It was the Hanger Bar and Sky Lounge, located on the corner of 4th and C streets. Business there was good. A few years later she moved “up town,” near the Federal Building, and opened another club called the Memo Pad. It was a small but profitable place that fostered dreams of something bigger and better.
Construction was almost complete. The new business was to be a dinner club, located on 4th Avenue, directly across the street from the Captain Cook Hotel. This was the realization of a decade old dream, which took Mom from dancing on East 5th Avenue, to a respected business owner.
Opening was less than a month away. Building funds had come from the sale of the Memo Pad, delaying payments of bills, and literally “hawking the family jewels.” Everything Mom had was tied up in this dream.
At 5:36 pm on the 27th of March, 1964, that dream ended.
Even these days, it happens: “You were raised in Anchorage? Were you living there during the Great Earthquake?”
I never lie about it. “Yes, but I missed it.” Thankfully.
Yet that’s a story too. Dad (who by then lived with Mom in Tacoma) and I were enjoying my spring break from AMU on a lark to Washington, DC.
That Saturday morning after Good Friday 1964, we ambled down to the lobby of the old Willard Hotel and located the restaurant. Newspapers stacked by the entrance trumpeted the unbelievable headline ”Anchorage Destroyed by Quake.”
Suspecting a practical joke, I picked up the first newspaper in order to examine the front page of the second paper in the stack. Same thing. Third one, ditto. This was no joke.
Immediately and repeatedly we tried to call Anchorage and only received busy signals.
A raft of inflammatory articles in the papers at breakfast got us plenty worked up, but since we could do little except worry, we elected to continue our sightseeing. Mt. Vernon was memorable.
Sunday morning, on schedule, we prepared to return to Seattle/Tacoma and Anchorage. Reconfirming, we were pleased to discover that the flight was direct to Anchorage via Sea-Tac.
At Dulles International Airport, when we approached the bus for the plane (the regular routine), we were surprised to see dozens of press people with all their paraphernalia crowded aboard. Like us, they were headed for Anchorage. Only then were we confronted by the real enormity of the disaster in Alaska.
My plane was the first civilian aircraft to land at Anchorage International since Friday afternoon. The runway, though seemingly intact, was a roller coaster. Of course, the place was a shambles, starting with the obvious: the tower had buckled to the ground.
There were no taxis or other transportation. I grabbed my suitcase and walked to Spenard, gawking at the damage. Already, as I recall, over-the-ground water pipes had begun to appear, courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers, for whose action and organization we all should be eternally grateful.
Someone drove me to my AMU dorm in Gould Hall. It still stood! But books and the stereo from my bricks-and-boards bookcase littered the floor, now disfigured with tiles broken by falling bricks. Seeing no other damage, I reconnoitered the general area, and learned that, since there was no water, we could tap the huge drums of CD water stored in the daylight basement of the building. You know — the Civil Defense bomb shelter.
Alaska had been hit by another kind of bomb, this one without radiation but instead a most scurrilous demon: a tsunami. Several in fact, but not in Cook Inlet, thankfully.
Here, we survived. The ensuing days brought unique requests of students and citizens generally. I recall going out to KFQD radio station to answer phones from worried families one night – all night. Later, a group of us was asked to drive out to Turnagain to help homeowners retrieve their furniture and appliances from tilted houses, destined for the landfill. We did our part.
GINGER HARRIS METCALF
I was driving from San Francisco to Seattle when the quake hit. In those days, communication with friends in Anchorage was not as easy as it is today so there were many days of not knowing of their safety following the quake.
On the day of the 1964 earthquake, I was studying for one of my exams at the University of Montana in Missoula.
All of a sudden, I felt the room shake but only for a moment. A few hours later I heard on the radio about the grave damage an earthquake had caused in Alaska. It was a moment I will always remember with much sadness.
My years at Anchorage High School (1954-58) were rewarding, joyful, and exciting. They will be meaningful treasures in my life forever.
At the time the Great Alaska Earthquake struck, I was serving in the US Navy as lead trumpet for the Commander Seventh Fleet band. On a month’s leave in preparation for my rotation to the Seattle band, my fiancée and I were visiting her parents in Niihama, on the island of Shikoku, Japan.
We learned about the quake on the news.
My fiancée’s parents owned the first color television in Niihama. They kept it at their restaurant where everybody who was anybody came to watch this wonderful, new invention. Naturally, my future in-laws told the ever-changing collection of restaurant patrons and family visitors that the family of their daughter’s fiancé still resided in
Although I did not understand enough Japanese at the time to make out all that these gracious folks said to me, I knew full well what the deep bows and expressions of condolence were all about. I greatly appreciated their kindness toward an American during this time of uncertainty for me.
The quake news gave rise to a lively conversation among family and friends gathered in that small sushi restaurant about the effect such a tremor would have on the city of Niihama. Their lovely town is a main port on the Inland Sea of Japan, sometimes called the Asian Mediterranean. An earthquake the size of the one in Alaska would cause a tidal wave that could easily destroy Niihama.
In early April I returned to my base in Yokosuka and read the “Earthquake Edition” of the Anchorage Daily Times [called the Anchorage Times after 1976], with its many pages of photographs, that my mother had sent to me. As reassured as I felt to know all of my family had survived intact, that newspaper enabled me to sense fully the amount of destruction to my hometown.
The April 2011 earthquake and tidal wave at Fukushima caused Japan to suffer the very level and kind of devastation we had discussed 47 years earlier.
MARY JO COMINS
Easter week-end 1964: my parents and sister had come to Missoula where I was attending the University of Montana. My grandparents and an aunt and uncle also lived in Missoula where my dad had grown up.
Good Friday evening after dinner at my Aunt Donna and Uncle Glenn’s house, my parents, sister, and I were playing a board game at one end of the living room. Glenn and Donna were gathered around the television at the other end while their two girls busied themselves in their bedroom.
“Hey!” said Glenn suddenly, “Earthquake in Alaska!”
My dad was facing away from the television, intent on the game. He raised his left arm and said, “Yeah, yeah. We have them all the time. Whose move is it?”
Glenn sounded a little concerned. “You might want to take a look at this.”
My dad sighed and rose from his chair. “Do they always make such a big deal of it?” he asked as he walked toward the little screen.
Thus ended the board game (whatever it was) and pretty much of everything else for the next 36 hours as Dad tried every avenue he could think of to get information to or from Anchorage. This mild-mannered man was nearly frantic with worried frustration at not knowing first-hand the extent of the damage and how he could help. I had never seen him in such a state.
As a pilot with Pacific Northern Airlines, he called Northwest Airlines in Missoula seeking jump seat authorization for a flight back to Anchorage, only to be told there were no flights into or out of Anchorage.
“That isn’t possible,” he muttered, dialing the number of a local friend with the FAA who told him the Anchorage control tower was down and the runways ruined.
By Sunday my parents and sister were able to return home. Besides food, dishes, and household goods tossed wildly about, our house on Lord Baranof Blvd had only sustained cracks in two of the cement block basement walls. To reach the house, however, they had to take a detour through the Turnagain neighborhood due to a wide fissure across Lord Baranof between KFQD Road (now Northern Lights Blvd) and our house, which was, incidentally, two blocks closer to Cook Inlet.
It was mid-October of that year before I saw more than pictures of the earthquake damage. Ten days before the Quake, I had been hired to work for the Alaska Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. When the school year ended, I piled my belongings into a friend’s little white sedan with two other friends and rode for three days and nights, sharing driving duties, from Missoula to their various homes on the east coast. I was the last one dropped off in Flushing on Long Island.
When I returned to Anchorage after the Fair ended, I had been away for 10 months. Our basement was whole again. The fissure on Lord Baranof had been so well repaired that someone had to point out where it had been. The changes downtown and around Anchorage seemed surreal. I could scarcely remember what JC Penny’s had looked like before the quake. I did miss having a tuna sandwich and lemon coke at Hewitt’s Drug Store, though.
Administrator’s Note from Jana:
A special thanks to all who contributed memories for this story and to
MaryJo, who put it all together!
Watch for a post on Good Friday, April 18, 2014 of additional memories.