The Big Alaska Earthquake

A remarkable story, The Big Alaska Earthquake, lets you experience the 1964 earthquake through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl, living in Valdez.

big alaska earthquake

I was 14 years old, and we lived in Valdez when the earthquake happened. I'm now 66. Some of my memories are fuzzy, but I'll endeavor to keep things accurate.

We four kids had been home all day at our home site--two miles out on the highway--due to the Good Friday holiday. Mom and Dad had been at work all day, then they had gone grocery shopping, partly for eggs to die for Easter.

The SS Chena was at the big dock. Daddy always long shored when ships came in. Our “across-the-creek” neighbors had stayed in town. Smokey was long shoring for the first time. Daddy had promised the four kids a forklift ride, and he wanted to get back quickly, for them.

My brother Gary was outside chopping wood. I was washing dishes. Our parents had barely gotten home and the groceries (including the eggs) were on the table, when everything began to shake.

We weren't unfamiliar with earthquakes, so at first, we just went about our business. Within seconds, we realized it was more serious than usual. The noise was deafening, and the motion kept changing repeatedly from up-and-down, to sideways.

Daddy yelled for us to get under the solid archway between the kitchen and dining rooms. Mom, Frank, Cindi, and I tried to stay in that doorway. Daddy stood by the kitchen table trying to shield us from flying objects.

Gary tried to get through the door into the porch adjoining the kitchen. Through the kitchen windows we could see him hanging desperately onto the doorknob. The door would swing inward, but as soon as he would try to let go and get over to us, the door would swing outward, which it was NOT designed to do! I remember screaming, “Get inside, Gary!” Finally, with Dad's help, he was able to join us.

Then things got worse. We had snowbanks on either side of our driveway. Thankfully, that year we had a snowblower, and Daddy could drive right up to the house. That hadn't always been so.

At first, we could see those snowbanks and our car outside the windows, but just as Gary got inside suddenly we were plunged into blackness. Then we could see outside again. Daddy yelled that we had been underground. That happened three times.

Daddy again yelled for us to get to safety--this time under the dining room table. We had to keep crawling all over the floor to keep up with that table—funny now, but not then!

Even when the shaking stopped except for aftershocks, things weren't over. Suddenly, Daddy screamed at us, “Get in the car…NOW!” Everyone except me headed for the door. I had spotted my borrowed accordion on a chair in our “sunken” living room, which was about to get REALLY sunken by a flood of glacial silt! I was determined to get that accordion to safety!

As I reached it, and Daddy came running to get ME to safety, my stocking feet got soaked with the icy sludge that was already pouring in. We got the accordion to the table. He didn't have much choice; I was carrying it, and he was pulling me.

We rushed to the car with the awful flood gushing all down the driveway. He immediately started the engine and started backing out. When he reached the turnaround to go upward toward the highway, we felt a couple of BIG bumps, but he gunned the engine, kept the wheels turning, and we finally got to the top...where we were forced to stop...just in time to keep the front end from heading into a HUGE crevice. It was about five feet across.

Daddy always carried shovels in the car, so he and Mom got out and started throwing snow and debris into the crevice, but they soon gave up, saying that they couldn't hear anything hit bottom!

By then, except for minor noise from continuing aftershocks, it was eerily quiet. We realized later, that earlier that day there had been little wild animal activity. Even our own animals had been jumpy. Animals always seem to know when a disaster is coming.

Suddenly, Mom looked toward town, and quietly said, “Frank...look at the light on the mountains.” Of course, we all looked. It seemed obvious that a good part of the town must have been on fire. We found out later that it was one of the tank farms.

Daddy decided to try again to bridge the crevice. In the meantime, Mom, Gary, and I walked down to the house to get what supplies we could. We were able to get all the groceries. All the eggs were intact! We got clean dry clothing for everyone except me. My clothing had been in the bottom drawers of my dresser and was soaked and muddy. The others' shoes weren't totally wet, so dry socks helped, but my shoes had been in the living room, buried in the mud. Mom did get a few blankets and pillows on one trip. Daddy didn't want to keep the car running because he wasn't sure when or where we'd be able to get gas.

We kids and Mom were terrified of the trips back and forth for supplies because at the bottom of the driveway we had found another chasm. We were able to get across it by jumping, the first time, and Mom found some boards to put over it, but we could tell that probably the only way the car had gotten over it was because the water had been rushing through it so fast that it had helped carry us across.

Mom and I made our final trip for supplies after Daddy sent Gary over to the Stuart's house. Their dogs had been barking like crazy. Gary always loved animals. He set the dogs free from their kennel. He said the house looked like a total loss.

By the time we all got settled back in the car and were huddled into blankets, vehicles had begun pouring out of town, headed for six-mile hill which was on bedrock and had a small waterfall that usually ran all winter.

After many vehicles passed, a friend and his family came by in his tow truck. He had long boards that he and Daddy put over the crevice. We all “rode” in the car as it was carefully pulled onto the highway—yet another terrifying event.

At some point we learned that anyone who had been on the docks during the quake was probably gone. It was later confirmed that Smokey and all of his family were among those who disappeared during the tsunami.

We drove to the picnic area, but stayed only a short time. Daddy was worried about vagrants and looting. Even though we knew most of our small town's population, there were often a few drifters. He was worried that one of them might try to loot what was left of our place if we were gone all night.

He drove back and parked on the highway near the driveway. At that point, I broke down and cried hysterically. Mom finally gave me half of a sleeping pill from her purse. The next thing I knew, it was morning, and we kids were all wondering what was for breakfast.

I still carry a reminder of that night. One patch of hair at my right temple had gone completely white by morning. It never changed back. Before I was 30 years old, all of my hair was totally white. When beauticians asked about it, I'd tell them this story.

Throughout the next day we heard more horror stories as people (mostly men) headed back into town to see what could be done immediately for housing and food. We later learned that 31 members of our community would never return.

By evening it was decided that at least the women and children should head for Tonsina Lodge where the proprietors had kindly agreed to let anyone stay at least one night. Then we were sent to the Glenallen High School to register as Valdez survivors, after which we were parceled out to other places of refuge.

Our family and several others were graciously hosted by a Christian boarding school near Copper Center. We stayed about five days. Mom then decided to take us to Fairbanks where plane rides had been arranged for people wanting to leave the state. We were bused there.

After a few days at a Fairbanks hotel, the three younger kids were sent to South Dakota, where they stayed alternately with our two sets of grandparents until we picked them up during the summer.

She then went back to Valdez to help with recovery efforts, and I stayed in Fairbanks with a friend whom I'd met during my first two trips to the Alaska Spelling Bee. I had already won my third Bee in Valdez, and was supposed to attend the State Bee in Anchorage. Diane's family let me stay with them to attend school with her at Main Jr. High to finish 8th grade. The huge school was terrifying to me at first, but I grew to love it.

The Fairbanks Kiwanis Club gave me a scholarship to represent Valdez at the Spelling Bee. Diane (representing Fairbanks) and I traveled together and stayed with the family (prior Valdezians) with whom I had previously stayed. Their house had been devastated by the quake, also, but we were welcomed to their new home.

When school let out, Mom and Dad picked me up, and we drove the AlCan to Aberdeen, South Dakota (where they were both born and raised) to pick up the other kids. During the week spent there we saw tornadoes and HUGE hail that left dents in our car. On our way home, we narrowly avoided another tornado just south of Edmonton. Plus, while camping one night, huge caterpillars overran our tent and crawled into our sleeping bags (yuck).

I don't remember much else about that summer, except one thing. We had been living and fixing things up at two-mile. One day, a friend came running down our somewhat-less-elevated hill toward the house. He had been working with the Coast and Geodetic Survey, deciding what to do about repairs.

He sternly ordered us, “Pack up and get out of here!” The men had put instruments down through small crevices in the road, and for miles around, there was nothing but space. Their instruments never reached anything solid!

By that time, there were rental trailers available in town, for State workers. Mom was eligible, and we ended up in a small court, where we lived until Daddy built a small house on our replacement land grant in the new town site.

Life goes on.

Linda A. Wingfield

You might like these