The Great Alaska Earthquake

Note: Fifty years ago, March 27, 1964, the Great Alaska Earthquake struck. I was caught in its fierce tremor at Fort Richardson, an Army Post near Anchorage. Below is an article I wrote for the New Mexico State University alumni magazine. It was published just a few weeks after the earthquake.

Good Friday 1964 a light snow fell on Anchorage, Alaska. Good Friday is a holiday in Alaska; most people were home anticipating the weekend. My Army duties keep me at work all day and my wife spends the day preparing for weekend guests. Because of the snow she is house bound all day and needs respite. She asks to take our three-year old daughter to the Post Exchange (PX) for a change of scenery.

A woman was trapped under the debris falling from the J.C. Penney department store for several days. She miraclously survived.

A woman was trapped under the debris falling from the J.C. Penney department store for several days. She miraculously survived.

Because of renovations, all the PX merchandise is in the basement including, to my daughter’s delight, jewelry. While talking to the sales clerk I feel a ripple under my feet and then a roar; the floor trembles. The clerk says, “What’s that?” I say, “Earthquake.”

Grabbing my daughter I search for a safe place and find a doorway I hope is structurally sound. The power of the quake increases. I figure it’s over in a couple of seconds I am not alarmed. Holding my daughter in my arms and covering her head I become alarmed as the building continues to shake. Debris falls and glass crashes around us. In the darkness a safety lamp lighting illuminates a dancing hosiery display rack and swaying stacks of television sets. Three minutes and fifteen seconds later the earth stops moving. There was no way out; darkness and debris prevents me from finding the entrance. A second lieutenant appears in the light of the emergency lamp. The winter field uniform shines with Corps of Engineers insignia and around his neck an Engineer’s red scarf. This officer, glowing in army splendor, seems angelic. He stands there saying, “What a building, what a good building.” I interrupt his structural analysis asking if he knew how we could get out. He does and guides us to a stair case unknown to me.

Hugging my daughter closely and I find my automobile. The car has moved. Askew in the parking-slot the car now is at about a thirty degree angle. On starting the car the radio comes the announcer reports we experienced a major catastrophe. Rushing home I find my wife safe but in a state of terror, our home disheveled but nothing damaged.

As the chief of intelligence production, I have the data needed by emergency personnel to begin rescue operations. Fortunately, the National Guard, being encamped at Fort Richardson for annual training and ready to return home, stays on duty for the night. The Guard reconnoiters Anchorage and the adjacent areas while regular Army personnel guard sensitive installations. Initial reports are Anchorage has been destroyed and bodies are seen in the rubble but in daylight we find that the bodies and body parts seen by the Guardsmen are a department store’s mannequins. Nevertheless, the damage from the quake is extensive. Large buildings collapsed and the twenty-story landmark McKinley Building twisted like a rubber band. Buildings sank into the ground and whole neighborhoods were swallowed as the earth opened. A tsunami obliterated an inhabited island in the Gulf of Alaska, all but destroyed the city of Seward on the Kenai Peninsula, swallowed docks and people at Valdez, and one hundred and thirty-three people lost their lives. The Chugach Mountain range east of Anchorage rose eight feet, and Resurrection Bay at Seward dropped about six phantoms. The earth under Anchorage turned to water and could not support much of the city.

The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 is the most powerful experienced in North America and the second largest experienced in the world. It is rated at a seismographic magnitude of 9.2.

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