We are not going to Folly Beach for the Polar bear swim, and we do not plan to launch a bunch of New Years Eve fireworks. So here is something a little different. I have been rummaging through a bunch of old files looking for some old photos. In the process I found a letter I wrote to my parents two days after the Alaskan earthquake of 1964. I have told the earthquake stories many times, and like all 50 year old memories, they get distorted. Below is the letter I wrote 48 hours after the earthquake. It is a word for word, comma for comma, transcription of the letter. Like any live, crime scene report, some of the details would profit by subsequent elucidation. Nonetheless, here is the story as I saw it at the time with no editorial comment. I hope you enjoy it.
Hello Folks, 29 Mar 1964
Well, not much to write about, but we did have a little earthquake over the weekend. Seriously, we have had quite a time of it. I was on my way home from work Friday, and in the process of running a couple of errands. I was going to pick up an Easter egg coloring kit and an Easter lily. Apparently the idea of my buying flowers for Durelle was an earth-shattering event, for suddenly I felt a weird, wobbling sensation as if a wheel were about to fall off. I pulled over and stopped so I wouldn’t lose that wheel only to discover that my car wasn’t wobbling…the road was. For an instant I was relieved because I was already anticipating car repairs. Then I got things back into perspective. After all, an earthquake can be at least as serious as a broken wheel. That instant of relief to find that “it was only an earthquake” was a very transitory thing, but it still stands out in my memory because of its incongruity.
I hopped back into the car and headed home; now only two blocks away. The earth was still shaking, for the quake lasted over 5 ½ minutes. For a few hundred yards it was quite a drive. The road was even more slippery than usual and I saw one driver park his car and sit there minding his own business when the ditch on the side of the road moved over under him. That is what literally happened.
When I got home Cindy was still crying, but Durelle had everything under control. A few lamps scattered some broken glass when they fell and bookcases fell over. One kitchen cabinet disgorged some of its contents of baby food. There would be a mess to clean up, but no real damage was done.
I did decide that it would be a good idea to get out of the house, so we all got in the car and wandered over in the direction of a friend’s house a couple of miles away. We did see a collapsed carport and some cracks in the road, but we still had no idea of the seriousness of the tremor. After we had travelled down MacKenzie Drive a few blocks, I suddenly realized that the horizon had changed! I turned the car around and parked aiming south away from the collapsed area and told Durelle to leave if she heard anything that scared her. I ran down to the point where the road disappeared.
My first impression was that it looked as if someone had dropped a giant box of peanut brittle. The ground was frozen about three feet down and covered with 6 to 12 inches of snow. Thousands of chunks of those three foot thick slabs were jumbled in unreal disorder. These pieces varied in width from 5 to 100 feet. About a block from where I stood I could see my boss’s house. Major Jack Hornsby, his wife, four kids, house, car, and dog had dropped en masse about 40 feet and slid north toward Cook Inlet almost a block.
I yelled to him to find out what his immediate needs were. He said his family was OK and that there were many people who would need ropes, helicopters, wrecking bars and first aid gear. I couldn’t get through to the Air Force Base by phone to call on my radar shop, but I briefed a mobile ham operator on what I knew and he started the wheels rolling.
With Durelle and the kids at a neighbor’s house away from the most dangerous areas I changed clothes and headed back into the Turnagain area. This area of about 400 homes ranging in value from $50,000 to $300,000 was the finest residential area I had ever seen. It was located along a bluff a hundred or more feet above the ocean. About 100 homes were flattened and tossed around. Another 100 had settled, shifted and broken.
It took about fifteen minutes to navigate the crevasses between the broken end of the road and Hornsby’s house. Normally it is only a block. He had gotten his family out and was commencing a house to house check for possible occupants. I joined him, and in the next two or three hours we led several people out. There must have been some panic at the time of the ‘quake, but while I was there, there was an amazing calmness and sense of purpose. How those helicopters found places to land in those shambles is beyond me, but they must have made a dozen trips while I was there. I crawled through one house that was actually upside down.
We finally quit and crawled back to his badly worried family. We all piled into my car, went home, settled the kids down with some hot chocolate (heated over a propane torch), and began to lay out some bedding. Then that tee totaling Southern Baptist got himself outside about four ounces of bourbon just as if he knew what it was for. I can’t say that I was surprised. Considering the state of shock, I’m sure it did a lot of good.
When daylight came, we went back and retrieved his valuables, food and clothes. Then I drove them out to the guest house on base. We cleaned up some here, but without power and heat, we decided to spend the night with a friend with a fireplace. We came back this morning, picked up some more of the mess and heated the house by leaving the oven door ajar.
Alaska has been set back many years, but without exception everyone is digging in with optimistic enthusiasm. There were almost no fires and well under a hundred fatalities, yet the ‘quake was actually stronger than the ‘Frisco ‘quake of 1906. Coastal cities that have lost their “raison d ‘etre” will rebuild bigger than ever. What I mean by that is that Seward, just named one of America’s “All American” cities by Look magazine, has lost its canneries, docks, and rail yards. There is not much else in that town, but they are already floating bonds with initiative as their only collateral.
Perhaps it is overly romantic to say that strong remnants of the Alaskan pioneer blood has made its presence known, but the way this place is bouncing back is amazing to me and yet taken for granted by the natives.
I feel that my family will have profited by this experience.
P.S. Did that Seattle operator get in touch with you?