The Great Alaska Earthquake

A light snow fell on Good Friday 1964 in Anchorage. Because Good Friday is a holiday in the state, much of the population had finished the day and anticipated the weekend and the Easter celebrations. The Alaska National Guard, in its annual winter encampment at Fort Richardson, began to break camp and prepare to return home. I had spent the day at my duties in the intelligence section of the U.S. Army Alaska headquarters. At five in the afternoon my work done I headed home.

When I arrived my harried wife asked if I would take our three-year old daughter to the Post Exchange to get her out of the house. The snow had kept them house bound and my wife had spent the day preparing for weekend guests with whom we would celebrate Easter. I knew our daughter would enjoy the Post Exchange, so off we went.

Renovations of the Post Exchange, underway at the time, meant all the merchandise could be found at the basement level of the building. Only one narrow stairwell led to the basement and the crowded area included all sorts of items for sale; television sets, radio and phonograph equipment, clothing, sporting goods, house hold items, personal hygiene supplies, and to my daughter’s delight, jewelry.

As we stood looking at the baubles and gems and talking to the jewelry sales clerk, who I knew, a roar came from my left, it would be the south end of the building, and the floor began to tremble.

The clerk said, “What’s that?”

I said, “Earthquake.”

I picked up my three-year old daughter and quickly looked for a safe place to be. Just as I found a place I thought would be structural sound the power of the quake increased, the lights went out, and the roar overwhelmed us. Since I had experi-enced earthquakes before, I did not feel alarmed. I figured it would be over in a second or two and everything would be fine. However, as I held my three-year old daughter in my arms and tried to cover her head, I became alarmed as the building continued to shake, debris fall from the ceiling, and glass crashed and smashed all around us. A safety lamp had come on just over our place in the basement and as the earth shook we watched a hosiery display rack on casters do a dance in front of us and several stacks of television sets sway back and forth. Three minutes and fifteen seconds later the earth stopped moving, the noise subsided, and I wondered how to get out of the Post Exchange basement. Darkness and debris stopped me from simply plowing our way back to the stairwell from which we descended into the basement.

Out of the darkness a young second lieutenant appeared and stood in the spot light of the emergency lamp. On his army field uniform he wore engineer corps brass and around his neck he wore the red scarf of the Corps of Engineers. The colorful army field uniforms in 1964 changed when we noticed they made good targets in Việt Nam. However, in 1964 this young man, glowing in his army splendor, looked like an angel.

He stood there looking around and saying, “What a building, what a good building this is.”

Finally, I interrupted his analysis of the quality of the building and asked if he knew how we could get out of there. He said he did and guided me, carrying my daughter, and two others who joined us up a larger stair case we did not know existed. Relieved that we were back in sun light I turned around to thank the young man, but he was not there.

I hugged my daughter more closely and returned to our automobile. The car, however, had moved. Askew in the parking-slot where I had precisely nosed it in, the car now was at about a thirty degree angle. When I started the car and its radio came on I realized we had experienced and survived a major catastrophe; maybe thousands of people had died. I rushed home to find my wife in a state of terror. Interior bookshelves had tumbled to the floor, cabinets had opened and pots and pans fell out of them. For some reason we did not lose a single cup, saucer, or dish. An iron was damaged and made useless when it fell from an ironing board in our basement. Finally, our cat went into a panic, from which I think she never recovered.

Called back to duty I found that the National Guard had been retained in service. Because my work had been the chief of intelligence production, I had all the data needed to know everything emergency personnel could use to begin rescue opera-tions. As the night progressed the Guard personnel reconnoitered Anchorage and the adjacent areas while regular Army personnel guarded sensitive installations. Reports came back telling us that Anchorage had been destroyed and hundreds of bodies could be seen in the rubble. When daylight came we found that the bodies and body parts seen by the Guardsmen had turned out to be mannequins from a local department store. Nevertheless, the damage from the quake had been extensive and severe. Large buildings had collapsed and the twenty storied land-mark McKinley Building had twisted like a rubber band. Buildings sunk into the ground and whole neighborhoods had been swallowed as the earth opened.  Tsu-namis obliterated an inhabited island in the Gulf of Alaska, all but destroyed the city of Seward on the Kenai Peninsula, and swallowed docks and people at Valdez.

Because Alaska has such a small population and because it was the late afternoon of Good Friday, the loss of life was minimal. The word minimal, however, does not describe the terror. One hundred and thirty-three people lost their lives in the three minutes and fifteen seconds.

The Great Alaska Earthquake is the most powerful ever experienced in the United States and North America and the second largest experienced in the world. It is rated at a seismographic magnitude of 9.2. The Chugach Mountain range east of Anchorage rose eight feet, and Resurrection Bay at Seward dropped about six phantoms. The ground under Anchorage turned to water and could not support much of the city. The earth rearranged itself that day. For months after that Good Friday aftershocks rattled our lives. I briefly lost a sense of footing; I felt as if constantly walked  into an unseen hole.

I would say that my wife and I think of this event as probably the most memorable experience of our lives. The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 comes to mind every time there is a major trembler somewhere in the world.

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