March 27, 1964, was Good Friday, the day commemorating the Last Supper on the evening of Christ’s betrayal.
At 5:36 p.m. Anchorage children were watching Fireball XL5 on KENI-TV Channel 2. Dinners were being prepared in homes all across Alaska. It was a fairly warm day, only four or five inches of snow on the ground. Roads were clear and trees were bare, their buds not yet starting to show and the sap still dormant under the bark.
Not many of today’s residents remember that day. Those who were here will never forget it.
This writer was one who experienced the second-worst earthquake ever recorded, the worst ever on the North American continent.
Its epicenter was 46.6 miles due east of Anchorage, 15.5 miles below the surface of Prince William Sound. A 600-foot-long fracture occurred when the Pacific Plate was pushed 60 feet under the North American Plate. The fracture caused a section of the earth’s crust under Cook Inlet to drop as much as eight feet while the adjacent eastern section rose as much as 30 feet, according to federal geologists. Half of the planet vibrated. Levels in water wells as far away as South Africa rose and receded measurably.
In retrospect, one begins to realize the violence that occurred when this old earth was shaped. It is impossible to imagine the force that drove our mountains to rise so high and dug the valleys so low. Just what caused part the Aleutian land bridge to collapse into the water? What changed the Arctic from a tropical paradise to a land covered with ice? And why is Alaska warming again? People still seek the answers to those questions.
A total of 131 lives were lost on that fateful day 54 years ago; only 15 deaths were due to the earthquake itself, the rest killed by devastating ocean waves.
The force of the break caused a powerful tsunami that wreaked havoc in the Gulf of Alaska and along the West Coast. Underwater landslides created even more huge waves. The highest known wave was 219 feet, recorded in Valdez Inlet’s Shoup Bay.
A 21-foot wave hit Crescent City, Calif., around midnight. There had been a tsunami warning, but the first wave was small and of no effect. Not so with the one that slammed into the downtown of the 7,500-resident city a few minutes later. Eleven lives were lost and many buildings were destroyed there. Five other people died at Newport Beach, Oregon.
In Alaska, the tsunamis and a series of tidal waves wiped out several coastal settlements. Valdez, Whittier and Seward were especially hard hit. Giant fuel tanks were smashed, their leaked contents set ablaze. A locomotive and rail cars at Seward were thrown off rails which were twisted by the force of the onrushing water. An Anchorage physician in his pleasure boat in Seward when the wave hit ended up stranded high in a tree a quarter of a mile inland, still seated in the craft and wondering how to get safely down.
At Valdez, vessels were tossed about and the town so devastated that it was relocated to a safer spot. There, 30 people lost their lives from the water that slammed into the town. Passengers and crew aboard ships shared harrowing tales about how they held on while the vessels were tossed about.
The villages of Chenega and Afognak were devastated. At Chenega, 23 residents drowned. Twice that many were able to outrun the wave and reach higher ground.
Anchorage suffered the greatest monetary damage due to the slippage of ground that caused buildings to collapse.
Commercial buildings on four blocks on the north side of 4th Avenue were destroyed. Not hit by tsunamis, Anchorage suffered nine deaths due to the quake. Two persons on the sidewalk and a woman in a parked car died when concrete panels on the front of the JC Penney store fell during the shaking. Others perished from injuries received when structures collapsed. Two women were found alive on Monday after being trapped in an elevator for nearly 60 hours.
A first-hand description follows:
I was part of a crew of seven working overtime on a high-priority project at the Field Printing Plant at Ft. Richardson. A slight rolling motion under my chair first caught my attention; having gone through several small tremors, it caused no concern. The rolling continued for several seconds before I looked up to see the heavy fluorescent light fixture overhead swinging back and forth. After a few more seconds I called out to plant foreman Marvin Heikes in the darkroom next door, “Hey, quit rocking the boat!”
Those words were barely out of my mouth when a very sharp jolt hit the frame warehouse building.
I headed for the exit, crossed the loading dock in one bound and landed on the road. There, five of my colleagues were lined up; four of them were facing the building and the fifth, the supply sergeant, was standing at the end of the line.
I do not recall hearing any noise until the undulation of the ground ceased. All my attention was focused on staying upright. It was not easy. The pavement under our feet was rising and falling in waves that appeared to be 14 to 16 inches high. They matched similar waves along the roofline of the building.
The barn-style freight loading door was made of 2×6 lumber, about 7 feet high and 8 feet wide. It slammed non-stop back and forth on its track as the building rocked with the force of the bucking ground.
I noticed the foreman’s Volkswagen bus parked next to a power pole rocking back and forth. The pole, with a pair of transformers affixed, was flexing in a manner resembling a rod being prepared for the fisherman’s cast of a lure into a lake. I asked if he wanted to move it. He just shook his head.
When the ground was once again solid after what seemed an eternity later, I heard the alarm bells in warehouses across the way ringing loudly.
The supply sergeant, newly arrived in Alaska, looked with wide eyes and asked of us, “Does this sort of thing happen very often?”
We went back inside the building where we saw items that had been on shelves and tabletops strewn about. Amazingly, six 5-foot tall stacks of printed material on two large carts were intact, slightly twisted, but not tipped over. The carts had rolled back and forth, but the large sheets of paper withstood the motion.
Heikes, the man in charge, told us to stand by while he called to see if the power could be restored so we could complete the priority job.
“Marv,” I said, “Priorities changed in the last five minutes. I’m going to check on my family.” After making sure the vault where classified material was stored was intact and the building itself undamaged as far as could be determined, I headed home.
Reaching Birchwood, I found my family standing in the driveway. My bride and our neighbor with whom she had been shopping in Anchorage ordinarily would make their last stop at the still-new JC Penney store. Fortunately they decided to skip it that day.
Our home had only slight damage. No. 1 Son Steve made an inspection tour and reported that everything seemed alright, but, “The toilet is smoking.” It turned out that items in a cabinet had spilled without other ill effects. Contents of kitchen cupboards had fallen, including jelly that took forever to clean.
The power was off. Several neighbors brought sleeping bags and stayed overnight because we had a propane range and a fireplace. Fortunately, Matanuska Electric was able to restore power the next day.
It was then that we discovered a mystery that remains unsolved.
A television set was on the stand where it usually stood and was in good working order. A closer look, however, disclosed that instead of the flat top on which it previously rested, it was perched on its four legs. Apparently, the stand had done at least one half-revolution without dumping the tv onto the floor.
We are thankful that we came out without harm to anything but our nerves. But we still grieve for three people we knew who were lost in the disaster. We hope never to again experience such an event.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.