Chapter from Journey To A Dream
Set up: I have been told by my readers that this is one of their favorite chapters in my book, so I will set it up by telling you that Clyde is my husband, Shelley, Debbie, Lisa and Buddy are my childen....when the 1964 Big Alaska earthquake happened, we lived in the Spenard Trailer Park and had not yet found or started our homestead....
Chapter 7……The Big Earthquake
It was Good Friday, March 27th, 1964. I was standing at the stove cooking supper. It was about 5:30 PM. Clyde, Shelley and Debbie were sitting on the couch watching TV, and Lisa was standing near me. Buddy was playing at a neighbor’s house. All of a sudden the whole trailer began to shake violently; all I could do was turn the burners off on the gas cook stove and pick Lisa up from where she had been thrown to the floor. We staggered to the couch and sat there while the supper flew off the stove, the glasses and dishes crashed out of the cupboards above the sink and the canisters with sugar, flour, coffee, all the staples, fell off the shelf above the refrigerator, where they had been behind the TV. Of course the lids all popped off the canisters and dumped the contents on top of the spilled dinner and made such an awful mess! The TV didn’t fall off the shelf, but the refrigerator, which was under that shelf, and was bolted to the floor was wrenched loose and bounced about two feet out of it’s place, leaving big gouges in the tile floor. We couldn’t move, the trailer was pitching and twisting so hard. The electricity went off as soon as the shaking started. We heard a loud roaring rumble, and thought we were being bombed; somehow, because of the noise, it didn’t register that we were having an earthquake, not at first. We were so scared, we didn’t know what to do except pray, hard, and trust in God to make it stop. It lasted over five minutes, and we thought it would never quit. It seemed much longer. Shelley and Debbie cried all through it; Lisa laughed, and Clyde and I just prayed, and hung on to our kids. We could see the ground rolling outside, like large ocean waves. The trees and phone poles were twisting and swaying violently. Other trailers were rising up and down, pitching violently back and forth, and parked cars were rolling back and forth, crashing into each other. The ground cracked in all directions, and through it all was that horrible rumbling roar. We truly thought the world was coming to an end.
When the rolling slowed down, we grabbed the kids and ran outside, after Clyde un-jammed the door. Buddy came running from the neighbor’s - they had been outside through it all, hanging on to a fence. We were so relieved! Thank God no one was hurt. Everybody was outside, asking what had happened. I asked our next-door neighbor if he thought we had been bombed, or what? He said no, he thought it was an earthquake. But what a quake. The grand daddy of them all!
Later on we assessed the damage to our trailer, which was only slight, considering the twisting it took. We had no electricity, heat or water until late Saturday night, when we finally got our furnace lit and burning properly, and the electricity went on a little while later. They were still working on the water. It seemed the wonderful artesian well just disappeared. Completely. But they had a standby well, which they would hook up as soon as the water was tested for possible contamination. Meanwhile we melted snow for dishes, and boiled it for drinking. We could not drive anywhere except the short distance to the nearest market and all the water lines were frozen because the power was off for so long. The roads were all in bad shape with broken pavement everywhere. We could not phone our families in the States, because Civil Defense had all the phone lines tied up. We couldn’t even send a telegram, since there were no Western Union offices in Spenard and no one was allowed to drive into Anchorage until it was deemed safe to do so. All we could do was send a short special delivery letter when the Post Office opened on Easter Sunday afternoon for a few hours, to our folks and hoped they got it so they wouldn’t worry about us. The National Guard was present; to make sure no one tried to drive into town. It was actually about ten days before we could contact our folks. They had frantically called the Red Cross to try to find out if we were okay, and all they found out was that our names were not on a list of injured, missing or dead.
The newscasts on the air in the states had stated that Anchorage was destroyed and that everyone was either dead or injured. We found that out much later, but at the time we had no idea our folks were all so devastated, thinking we had all been killed. All the schools were closed until they had been inspected for damage and the Civil Defense said they could be opened once again. Two schools were totally wrecked.
Easter Sunday morning we went to church dressed in warm pants, sweaters, coats, and warm hats. They had announced over the radio that none of the churches had heat as yet and that everyone should dress warmly. No churches were damaged at all. The next day we all went to our children’s’ school for typhoid shots, which gave us all very sore arms. The school was okayed to be used, but only for shots, since the heat was not yet on. Two stores were able to open by Easter Sunday afternoon and it was announced on the radio that there was enough food in the supermarket warehouses for a month, and by that time there would be more coming in. We were caught low on everything after the quake, because most of our staple supplies went all over the floor. Also it was the end of the week, and before payday, and I hadn’t had a chance to stock up for the next week. But we made do, and others weren’t so lucky.
The Easter Bunny did not come and the kids were sad. But there were no eggs left in the store, most of them broke in the earthquake, and the few that were left were sold out before we got there and no Easter baskets and very little candy.
We discovered that we were over a main fault, and that a very deep but narrow crack about two inches wide went under our trailer from front to back and the rest of the trailers in this row, and possibly the water and sewer lines were broken. The landlord thought the sewers were all okay, but he had to dig down to make sure. It turned out that the water lines were broken, but once discovered, were repaired as rapidly as possible. Also the alternate well tested out as good, so in only a few more days we all had water again.
Many people were injured and some killed - it was the worst quake in the history of Alaska. Lots of damage was sustained and some people will never be found. The earth simply opened up and completely swallowed some homes in the Turnagain area; some bars on 4th Avenue sunk to the roof. Searchers found a very happy drunk in one of them - he thought he had died and gone to heaven - all that booze just for him! For three whole days. They got him out okay, unhurt, but very drunk.
Two boys, age about 13, were in the elevator in the JC Penney store downtown, wrestling and horsing around when the earthquake started. The electricity went off, stranding them between floors; they thought they had broken the elevator, until they forced the door open and managed to squeeze out of the 14-inch crack, and as they were running down the stairs, the walls were caving in behind them. They were very lucky to get out alive, and with no injuries.
A woman was sitting in her parked car on the street in front of Penney’s store when the exterior wall fell on her car and crushed her to death.
A man watched his house disappear into the earth with two of his children still inside - what a hopeless feeling that must have been for that poor man, may God have mercy on him.
No one who lived through the earthquake of March 27 at 5:36 PM on Good Friday will ever forget it as long as they live. A lot of people were left homeless, and the tidal waves following the quake actually destroyed the entire town of Valdez, did untold damage to Kodiak, and many people were killed.
The Salvation Army fed and housed over 500 families - about 1460 people or so, and also found or helped to find new places of residence for all of them, within a week. The Lions Club, the American Legion and Moose Lodge all opened their halls to anyone who needed shelter, food and heat, so no one had to go hungry. Also the Post Office began delivering mail again as usual within the week.
The landlord found the breaks in the pipes under the row of trailers we were on. There were three breaks in the water pipes, and the pipes were 8 feet under the ground, and it was a very hard job, digging up all that and fixing the broken pipes. We were so happy to have our water restored once again. We were fortunate, indeed, as most of the people in town weren’t able to even use their sewer facilities and the water was badly contaminated there.
Clyde was able to go back to work as soon as the building was declared safe, and he even got a raise. He was parts manager at a sales and service place for small private and semi-private aircraft. They sold parts, engines, planes, and flew freight, homesteaders to their home-sites, sold gas and did repairs.
In spite of everything, we were more determined than ever to stay in Alaska. People were really wonderful. Everyone was bending over backwards to help everyone else. The destruction was terrible. It was all very frightening, and we all tended to panic at the least little tremor, called ‘aftershocks’, which happened often every day and night. Earthquakes never bothered us before, but now we felt a sense of panic every time a rather strong shock could be felt.
The first time we got into the truck and drove to the store, and the first bumps we hit, Lisa started to scream and cry; we had to stop the truck to calm her down. Delayed reaction, I guess it was, since she laughed all through the quake.
Clyde had to jack the trailer up and re-block it because it bounced all the way off the foundation braces and twisted the skirting, and popped a couple of panels loose on the outside. Once he got the trailer leveled again, the panels slid into place with a little help. Then he fixed the skirting, after the landlord found the breaks in the water pipes, and we only got one storm window cracked out of all that movement. The overhead cabinets in the kitchen pulled away from the wall about an inch, but were easy to re-fasten. That was some sturdy trailer we had - after surviving the Alcan Highway, and then the horrible earthquake, it was still in pretty good shape!
We found that one way to get people to write was to have an earthquake of major proportions. We certainly did receive a lot of mail for about a month or more. People we never expected to hear from wrote to us and we did our best to answer one and all of them.
Major cleanup and rebuilding began at once, and what a stupendous job that was. An ad in the paper read - “NATURAL WONDER FOR SALE - 3 LOTS AND GARAGE, ONLY SELF-RISING LAND IN ALASKA”. What a sense of humor! Some folks left Alaska as soon as the roads were open, quite a few, in fact. Kind of like locking the barn after the horse is gone.
About mid-April the weather turned unseasonably warm, and we seemed to be having spring breakup. A lot of mud and water everywhere and rather warm weather, in the mid-40’s, shirtsleeve weather. But then, it snowed again, and temperature dropped back down to 25. We thought it was too good to be true. But the same day we received packages from my mom and dad with sweaters for the kids, Easter baskets, and goodies for all. The mail had been delayed because of the earthquake and was slower than ever. But getting those packages cheered us all up.
In May the two youngest, Lisa and Debbie, had been playing with Mac and Frances’ kids across the road, who broke out with chicken pox and three weeks later, it was no surprise when our two got it, later in June. The oldest two had already had it, when we were still in Missouri. The weather was very warm and nice and days full of sun once again, and very short dusk nights. So it was an extremely hard chore to keep those two lively ones cooped up inside the house until their spots went away. Neither of them felt sick, except for the first fever, and were as full of pep and energy as usual. One beautiful sunny day while I was ironing in the kitchen and (I thought) the girls were both busy coloring in their bedroom, Debbie went quietly out of the back door and found an old pack of matches. She decided to make herself a campfire in the vacant, brush-filled lot directly behind the trailer. So she piled a few twigs in the grass and lit them. A neighbor, a teenage girl a few doors down had been watching her and ran over to tell me about it. I had to borrow the next-door neighbor’s hose to put out the fire, because ours was locked in the tool shed and there wasn’t time to unlock the door and hook the hose up. I shudder to think what might have happened if that girl hadn’t seen Debbie and what she was up to. There was a breeze blowing and the fire was small, but scattered, and would have rapidly spread to the woods at the back end of the field and no telling where it could have gone from there. When kids get bored, they think up the most mischief, it seems. I was worn out by the time they were all recovered. I was especially glad when Debbie was all recovered and could go to kindergarten the first week of July, for six weeks. Then she could start first grade in the fall, and go to school with the other two school age kids.
We kept getting letters from friends and relatives asking why we weren’t moving back since the quake. We told everyone that asked that we weren’t coming back. We thought it kind of silly to run away because of the earthquake. No matter where you go in this world there is always something - tornadoes, hurricanes, floods or droughts, - there is nowhere except heaven where one can be perfectly safe. Everything seemed to be measured from that time on by the phrase “since the earthquake”. We heard the term so often it seemed.
Mac got out of the Air Force and their family left Alaska for their home in Tennessee about the first of June. We surely missed them. They were such nice people.
Anchorage had and still has quite a transient population, mainly because of the military bases, but partly because of the long winters. Some folks just can’t seem to take the length of time the snow is on the ground and the long periods of cold weather, with no clear cut signs of fall or spring. The saying is ‘Alaska has two seasons, Little Winter and Big Winter’. Also, it seems to be a place one either loves, or hates. No middle ground. And we loved it.