1964 Alaska Earthquake Tsunami is a gripping true story where you can imagine being on the deck of a ship, as you come face-to-face with the 1964 tsunami off Kodiak Island.
By Jerry Tilley
As I was pouring water into the battery cells from a small can the boat started to vibrate up and down, not sideways as if another boat was passing by, but unlike anything I had ever experienced.
It got so violent that I couldn’t hold on to the can or the batteries.
I looked back at the engine thinking the flywheel was coming off or the engine was out of control and ready to leave the engine room. Once I had convinced myself that this was not the case I made my way passed it and crawled up the ladder to the deck.
1964 Alaska Earthquake Tsunami
A very big husky young man was in the ice house that was built on top of the cannery roof. It was swaying with such violence we were surprised that it stayed up there. When the shaking and swaying stopped he came out of that small-crawl-through door like he had been shot out of a cannon. He hit the deck running and all you could see was his rear end going up the hill kickin’ up gravel.
Jim Major came out on the dock and was going to move my truck but couldn’t get it started. It was an old navy surplus panel truck that I used to carry my diving gear. I had a knife switch under the steering wheel that only my dog and I were aware. I told him to forget it and get out of there. I said, “Don’t worry about the truck it’ll be OK.” I am an incessant optimist.
All of a sudden we snapped out of our earthquake induced stupor and the first thing I did was look for the fire ax to chop the lines off the cleats. I mentioned to the captain that we should get away from the dock right now because we were sure to have a tidal wave. The main engine was running so all he had to do was put it in gear and pull away from the dock.
We pulled out into the middle of the channel about 100 yards off the dock and drifted in front of the cold storage on the city dock and the union oil dock.
In just a few minutes the water started receding like some unknown force had pulled a gigantic plug. This was the second shocking, unbelievable event of the evening.
The water level continued to drop until we could see the bottom at the face of the city dock. The water level had dropped at least 25 feet in matter of minutes. We asked ourselves, “where did the water go and when do you think its coming back?” The Vessel “Anna A” was sitting on the soft mud bottom in front of the city dock and Norm Holm’s king crab vessel “Neptune” had snapped her lines and was laying on her side on the bottom between the union oil dock and the cold storage dock. The wheelhouse of the “Neptune” was laying seaward. Amazingly all the king crab pots were still secured to the deck. We could see that Arne Hansen had the “Sea Quail” out in the channel as well as Dal Valentine on the “Rosemary”. We couldn’t see into the boat harbor as we were too far out but we imagined that most of the boats were sitting on the bottom. I thought there were over a hundred boats in the harbor of various sizes.
The temperature is dropping a little but there is no wind. What water there is left around the area is as flat as a pool table.
Our supper, dishes and all, is still on the table untouched.
All four of us climbed the ladder to the flying bridge. The flying bridge is on top of the wheelhouse where identical controls as in the wheelhouse are located. When the vessel is coming into a dock or critical maneuvering is required, from up here the visibility is much better. We wanted to have a better view of the unknown disaster that was about to unfold.
1964 Alaska Earthquake Tsunami
We had marine radios and citizen band radios or CBs as they were called and so did everyone else. So the communications within the area was loud and clear. The radio was alive with chatter. We are all wondering what is going to happen next. I mentioned to no one in particular that we better get ready for a rush of water because when it comes back in to fill this gigantic hole it’s going to be something to behold. I’m not sure about time because I didn’t have a watch and I don’t think anyone else did either because when you work with nets on a rolling deck you don’t wear anything that could catch on the web. We were probably out there about half an hour when we heard over the radio that a 50 ft tidal wave just hit Cape Chiniak. We made an immediate and unanimous decision to head into the wave thinking we had a better chance of survival.
Of course we had no idea where the earthquake epicenter was or from which direction the wave was coming but thought being out in the open area of St. Paul Harbor rather than in the channel or the confines of the inner harbor would be the best move at the time. I had this vision in my head of this little 75 foot boat climbing the vertical wave and the wave breaking just before we reached the crest. We were heading southwest out toward the Navy base trying to see the white foam teeth of this monstrous wave coming at us at hundreds of miles an hour.
We were about adjacent of Gibson Cove approximately one mile southwest of the city dock when we realized the boat was starting to rise on a very large swell. We were at about a 20 degree angle being carried backward towards the town. The skipper pushed the throttle full forward and we were still going backwards. Ted told me to go down and drive a wedge in the throttle on the engine. I jumped to the deck and shot down into the engine room without touching one rung of the ladder.
The main only turns about 300 RPM and when I drove that wedge under the control lever it cranked up to about 400 RPM, way over what it was designed to do. I hurried back up to the flying bridge because I didn’t want to be in the engine room when the boat rolled over or sunk.
The additional revolutions on the main engine must have helped because just as we were right in front of the cold storage dock we broke over the top of the swell and were looking into the second floor of the cold storage building. I saw my truck lifted up and disappear under the surface. I guess it wasn’t very water tight.
Even with the main engine noise, that now sounded like a diesel locomotive, we could hear the wave tearing the town apart. Once the skipper had determined that we were in the clear he sent me down to pull the wedge from the throttle. The wave came in so fast the Neptune that was lying on its starboard side on the bottom just snapped to an upright position and was floating between the two docks. Ted edged the Fortress in close enough that I could jump aboard and tie on a tow line to get her out of what we had considered a very dangerous place. We managed to get her alongside and made her fast to the Fortress. We then proceeded to round up small boats that were floating aimlessly.
Most of these boats were beach seiners that had been stored for the winter on huge racks along side the cannery. We salvaged 13 of these little boats and tied them off to pilings near the King Crab Cannery dock. We managed to do this with the Neptune secured to our vessel. One of the largest King Crab vessels anyone had ever seen in this area was the “Chief”. It was about 150 feet in length and was secured to several piling north of the city dock. There was no indication that it ever moved other than up and down with the variations of water levels. Just inside of it is where we secured all the small boats. There are no city lights anywhere. We did not have big flood lights on the Fortress. All we had were deck lights as we never fished after dark but there were times when it would take hours on the aft deck to sort, wash and stow the shrimp in ice after the last tow. One of the boats cruising around trying to stay out of trouble had a large searchlight flashing around but it was no advantage to us.
1964 Alaska Earthquake Tsunami
We had just moved out into the harbor when the second wave roared in through the Near Island channel from the Northeast and into St. Paul Harbor from the Southwest. As the wave from the Northeast came smashing through the narrow channel it brought with it the fuel dock and fueling floats with all the fueling reels attached. Alaska Packers cannery went past us at about 20 miles an hour and I thought I saw an airplane but couldn’t be certain. It appeared that Sutliff’s entire stockpile from his lumber yard, some still bundled, was moving past along with everything else that would float.
We were near the nonexistent entrance of the boat harbor trying to lasso another boat when the northeastern wave hit us and drove us sideways into the southwestern wave and the combination of two forces generated a giant whirlpool. We were now going backwards with the main engine in full forward position in this swirling vortex with about a ten degree list. The skipper told me to go down and drive that wedge back into the throttle which I did in record time. The skipper had the wheel hard over to no avail.
There was a red house on the hill just north of the city dock that had been washed from its foundation and was floating along with all the other flotsam only this house had somehow managed to enter the swirling vortex inside of the Fortress. It started to break up and disappeared right before our eyes. We could look right down into this black hole.
This incident caused a large knot to form in my stomach. I think this condition is known as fear. Being a fearless individual I had never encountered anything of this magnitude in the pit of my stomach. Floats from the boat harbor were on the outer edges of this whirlpool and one of them hit the big boat, the “Chief”, it shot out and rammed us a violent blow that rolled us hard over and allowed us to escape the clutches of the swirling current. (This blow broke a couple planks and cracked a rib though we didn’t know it at the time.) The main engine exhaust pipe was red hot and blowing sparks and flame three feet out the exhaust. This was not a good sign. After we had that little whirlpool experience I went back down to the engine room and removed the wedge. I was pleasantly surprised that the engine wasn’t on fire. The engine room must have been 130 degrees and the old main was hot and smokin’. I oiled the rocker arms and checked ‘er out before returning to the deck. I didn’t want the old girl to quit now.
The skipper said, “I think we better get back out in the middle and forget about all the other boats and concentrate on saving ourselves”, we had no problem with that decision. Not knowing what to expect next we tried to stay out of the way of all the debris in the water. We couldn’t see up town but from the conversations on the radio, the town, whatever was left of it, had about half the boats from the boat harbor plugging the streets. We did witness some of the vessels going over the breakwater and some of them were grounded on the rocks. The first wave evidently transferred some of the boats from the harbor to new locations up town and the second wave removed some and took some others farther up town.
We headed out to the middle of the inner harbor and managed to grab another small boat and took it over to the pilings where we had secured the other boats.
1964 Alaska Earthquake Tsunami
We heard Bill Cuthbert answering someone on the radio when they asked him his location he said he wasn’t sure but he thought he was up by the old school house and had tied his boat, the “Selief” to telephone pole. We knew he had a load of live king crab aboard that he was supposed to unload. The crab would be getting very thirsty by now. They eventually unloaded the very dead king crab into a dump truck and hauled it away.
We realized the town was torn apart because some of the buildings were out in the harbor but had no idea the extent of damage. It was obvious the boat harbor was destroyed. Some of the floats were out in the bay and we saw two small boats stilled tied to one of them. About this time another wave came in and some of the boats that were up town like the “Henning J” came back out and was out of sight in a matter of minutes. The “Henning J” was found on the rocks on Holiday Island three days later, a total loss.
Then some connection of the cold storage’s ammonia system must have broken loose and the anhydrous ammonia saturated the air. There was still no wind to blow it away so it just hung over the water. The ammonia was so strong seeing and breathing was difficult. We had tears dripping from our cheeks. We tried getting close to the deck to breathe but that didn’t help. I went into the engine room. Buck and George went into the galley and I don’t know where the skipper found fresh air. The engine room wasn’t fresh air by any means but it was breathable. We continued farther out in the harbor from the cold storage building and finally the air became more tolerable.
1964 Alaska Earthquake Tsunami
It was very dark with no lights other than a few of the manned vessels running around looking for survivors or anything else worth the effort to salvage. Then I heard this voice from the water hollering “Hey Jerry, Jerry over here”. I hollered up to the skipper to stop the engine someone is out there. Again, “Jerry over here, wait, wait”. I recognized the voice and hollered back, “Al, is that you?” It was Allen Vincent and then we saw him. He was in an extremely small punt that couldn’t have been more than 6 feet long. He was on his knees paddling this wood chip of a boat with a little piece of wood about 3 feet long. I threw him a line and pulled him alongside.
He climbed aboard and got down on his hands and knees and kissed the deck several times. We asked where he had been. He said, “I was in the boat harbor when the shaking started and then I was trying find out what was going on when floats started groaning and sinking and the next thing I know water was rising and this little punt came flying by and I grabbed it and jumped in. I have been up town twice and back out, up the channel, down the channel, I have been over to Near Island and I think at one time I was about to the Navy Base but I rode that last one back here”. He said he couldn’t see too much but he sure heard a lot of screaming and crashing buildings. He said he was just hanging on for dear life. He was wet, cold and shaking. His eyes were red and he was complaining about the ammonia saturated air. We got him into the Galley where it was warm.
Our entire dinner was still untouched and sitting on the table.
We drifted around with the big “Neptune” still tied alongside trying to figure out what to do next. No one had a clue when the next wave was coming if any. I didn’t know at the time how many waves came in and out but it seemed to me that we had one about ever 45 minutes or less all night long. The great advantage, if the only one, through all this was the weather. All the stars were shining as you can only see when there are no lights and no air pollution to spoil the view. The only air pollution was the ammonia escaping from the cold storage. There was no wind and the temperature was probably just below freezing. There was so much going on minute to minute that we had no time to think about anything other than save the boat, ourselves and anything else we could do to help in this time of chaotic uncertainty.
As daylight started to vaguely appear we were greatly relieved. Not that we thought it was over; it is just that your mind and body seems to function better when you can see what you are doing. By this time we had determined that it was safe to move in toward the city dock if it was still intact and get rid of this boat that we have had tied to us all night long. That was our next move. It was just light enough that we could see the city dock was still there. The dock appeared to be stable although lots of planks were dislodged and the dock’s surface was clean. Not a single pallet, crate or vehicle marred the cleansing of the deck performed by Mother Nature. The buildings at the city dock appeared to be intact. We tied the “Neptune” off to the dock with plenty of slack and moved back into the channel to wait for more daylight and maybe another wave.
When light brightened the sky enough to see it was a sight to behold. The bay was full of boats, boat harbor floats, lumber, roofs of buildings, some with the rest of the building still attached beneath it in some cases and the flat surface of the water was covered with oil.
The rock breakwater for the boat harbor had boats hanging off of it and perched on top of it and laying along side.
We could see boats up town and saw the 80 foot “Hekla” that appeared to be perched on top of the bowling alley. The radio was still checking on everybody and all night long Arne Hansen on the “Sea Quail” gave reports to Dottie Valen of the Alaska Communications System on the miscellaneous boat’s location.
The “Kingfisher” was floating in Dog Bay as if nothing ever happened. There didn’t appear to be any damage whatsoever. During the night’s turmoil Arne Hansen on the “Sea Quail’ grabbed it as it was going by and towed it over there and released the anchor. He wasn’t aware that the owner Fritz Deveau (a crab fisherman and the Mayor’s brother) was asleep on board. Passed out would be more accurate because dropping an anchor right over your head should wake up the soundest of sleepers. The story goes; Fritz got up the next morning, walked out on deck, looked over at the location of the boat harbor, saw there was no boat harbor, saw some boats laying on their sides in the streets and the unbelievable mess of what was once a town and crawled back in his bunk thinking he was having a nightmare.
The “Fortress” was still floating and the old Atlas was still running. The engine’s high speed, fire belching performance during the night apparently did no harm. It was now broad daylight and people were starting to move around and check out the damage. There was a lot of damage to check out. It was a catastrophic night. Most of the down town area’s buildings were gone.
1964 Alaska Earthquake Tsunami
We tied up to the city dock not knowing what to do next when Charlie Warner, a friend of mine, that had been staying at my house while working on the construction of the newly rebuilt cold storage came down on the dock. He had spent the night up on Pillar Mountain. I got off the boat and the two of us walked on the broken plank dock over to the cold storage to survey the damage. Just as we got inside the building a tremendous aftershock just about knocked us down. Our exit was immediate. We got in Charley’s truck and managed to get part way to my house by driving over and around whatever was in the roadway. We had to walk about a mile as the road wasn’t passable. We came up over the hill where the Beachcombers nightclub was located. My house was just to the right and in back of the Beachcombers on Potato Patch Lake.
We both stopped and looked at the unbelieving sight before us, we couldn’t talk. No Beachcombers, no Potato Patch Lake, and there was no sign of a house where Jerry Tilley once lived.
We walked over to the location of the house and found a pipe wrench. That was it. Even the concrete foundation blocks and what little grass I had were gone. Potato Patch Lake was a lagoon. I had the clothes I had on my back and nothing else as it all went out to sea. Three oil paintings of my three kids was my biggest loss.
My dog, a Wolf and McKenzie River Husky mix was gone. I called and called then we started walking around the area and found the dog in a tree. He had a bone sticking out of his back and couldn’t walk but he was sure tail-wagging happy to see me. With some neighbor’s tender love and care he did survive.
One thing I was thankful for other than the fact that we made it through the worst night of intense, chaotic activity I had ever experienced, I had loaned all my diving gear to Jack Woosley that lived up on the hill away from the action of the sea. There we have it, Jerry Tilley ended up with some diving gear but no house, no clothes, no bedding, no truck, and no money as I spent it all on my appliances. But I certainly have lots to talk about.
One other strange occurrence after the Tsunami action finally calmed down the level of the water didn’t appear to change but a few inches for days. It was like a lake. There was basically no tide. This phenomenon wasn’t explainable by anyone I talked to. Even some of the scientist that arrived soon after the action had subsided couldn’t explain it. It was several days later that the tides started to resume normal function.
Later as the details of damage to other villages and communities rolled in it was determined that this was an earthquake of a magnitude never before recorded in North America. It was later established that it was 9.2 on the Richter scale.
Some of the people heard on the radio from down in the south 48 newscasters claimed Kodiak Island had sunk into the sea. It did sink but not completely.
1964 Alaska Earthquake Tsunami
A lot was happening in the town while we were out in the harbor and all we knew about is what we heard on the radio. Those on the radio didn’t know the extent of the damage until Saturday morning the 28th of March. Near Island Channel was clean, Kodiak Airways floats and all the planes were gone. The shipyard was gone, Standard oil dock and fueling floats was gone, Alaska Packers cannery and dock was gone and the big hardware and marine supply store was gone. There were a few piling left in the Near Island channel but other than that nothing remained. The channel chokes down to about 100 yards wide in one spot so I can imagine the wave from the northeast squeezing down in that spot and the force coming out the southwest end of the channel right where we were when it hit us. We couldn’t see it coming but we certainly knew what it was when it hit us.
Saturday morning after Charlie Warner and I returned to the boat after surveying the damage in the City and the area where my house once was located we stepped aboard to have a cup of coffee. The meal from the evening before was still on the table. It remained untouched. Ted, Buck and George were sitting at the galley table drinking coffee, all in apparent delayed shock.
One of the newer 80 foot steel king crab vessels the “Jaguar” according to a witness, went down that channel northward end over end and ended up on the bottom in 85 feet of water between Woody Island and Kodiak Island. This boat was raised several years later by two divers Jerry Tilley and Bill Mc Linn. It was purchased by Fred and Ruth Brechan and renamed the “Walter N”.
The official Kodiak city report of April 06, 1964 listed 35 boats sunk or aground, 17 missing, 25 with major or considerable damage, and 20 with slight damage
The epicenter of the earthquake was about 300 miles northeast of Kodiak Island in Prince William Sound very close to Valdez, Alaska. The first wave hit Kodiak about 30 minutes after the earthquake so it was obviously traveling at 600 miles per hour. From the epicenter of the quake and the generated numerous Tsunamis to Kodiak Island was a straight shot out of Prince William Sound southwest to Kodiak Island. The damage to the outlying Kodiak Island villages was unfortunately extremely severe.
Kodiak’s downtown area was virtually destroyed. The bars must have lost their doors because the town was littered with thousands of bottles of booze, cases of it. Word was issued to all “do not drink the booze it may be contaminated” So all the people that I know and some that I didn’t volunteered to test every bottle they could find. It was later determined that all the unopened bottles were free of contamination. No one believed that contaminated statement for a minute.
There was no telephone communications to the outside world until some telephone people got together and managed to get the system working early Saturday morning. In the meantime some ham operators were in contact with others on the mainland and got the word out that Kodiak Island had not sunk into the sea. In the first 7 days after the disaster the emergency communication’s system handled about 3,000 telegrams.
Thanks to the U.S. Navy, they airlifted about 300 homeless people to the south 48 states and loaned the city some emergency generators and power was restored to some of the town in a couple days.
The city had discussed the possibility of urban renewal in the near future. The town needed some upgrading and repair but not performed by Mother Nature. We were not ready.
Ben Gerke was my insurance agent. Friday morning after purchasing my new washer and dryer I paid him a visit and raised the insurance on my house and contents. I paid him $43 for the additional premium.
Fortunately his office was not destroyed and he was there on Monday morning when I walked in and revealed my sad story that my house had burned down. He exclaimed with wide eyes and obvious shock, “Really, when did that happen?” I answered, “About 10 minutes before the wave washed all the ashes out to sea”. He looked at me, smiled and reached in a drawer sorted through some papers and handed me my $43 check. Then he said, “I’m really sorry Jerry but you didn’t have tidal wave insurance.” I said, “This I already know, why did you think I told you it burned down?” I did have full coverage fire insurance. It just wasn’t my day.