"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Day the Earth Broke, Part Two

Waves of seismic energy roiled the surface of the earth in coastal southcentral Alaska on the afternoon of Good Friday, March 27, 1964. Leafless trees lashed violently back and forth. Fourteen-story buildings—the tallest in Anchorage—swayed far enough for water to slosh out of toilets, while at the same time their concrete facades shattered and cracked. Drivers pulled off roads to check for flat tires, then found they couldn’t stand upright on the heaving ground.

Slabs of pre-cast concrete fell off multi-story buildings, crashing to the sidewalks below, flattening cars within their deadly reach. Windows broke, spewing shattered glass in all directions. Steel railroad rails twisted and corkscrewed.

Only a few years old, slabs of the concrete facade ripped loose from the J. C. Penney store and crashed to the sidewalks below. One pedestrian and one person sitting in a vehicle were killed at this site. This photo was taken after much of the debris had been hauled away.

I opened the door of my car, thinking it would be better to sit than try to stand on the bucking, cracking hard-packed snow. As soon as I sat, I knew it was a mistake. If a crevasse opened beneath me, I would have less time to leap to safety. I stood again, hoping this interminable shaking would subside, but every time I thought it was easing, it would roar back to life with renewed energy and my car bounced along with it.

As bad as things were on the surface of the earth, far more malevolent forces were at work beneath it. Along the western coast of Anchorage, from downtown along the northern rim of the city above Ship Creek and the railroads yards, south past Bootlegger’s Cove and West Chester Creek, past the Forest Park golf course and country club, and through the expensive homes of the well-to-do with grand views of Cook Inlet and the mountains across the gray silty waters, past the modern ranch-style homes in the planned subdivisions of Turnagain by the Sea and Susitna View, a little-known transformation was occurring, one that would wreak all kinds of havoc on the city and its residents.

The 14-story McKinley apartment building withstood the quake, but its facade was severely cracked. A mile across town, her sister building suffered strikingly similar damage.

Beneath the office buildings and homes, the ground is wet sandy soil and clay. To geologists and seismologists, it is known as the Bootlegger’s Cove formation. When movement is added to the mix, the sand, clay and water churn in an unstable form called liquefaction. It is not a substance on which buildings and homes and paved streets should be built.

Standing in the parking lot, both hands hanging onto the door handle of my bouncing Studebaker Lark, I wondered about the noises I was hearing from the Turnagain subdivision less than a quarter mile away towards Cook Inlet. Pop. Pop. Pop. On and on the noises sounded. Just like ladyfinger firecrackers, I thought. An inexhaustible supply of tiny firecrackers less than an inch long.

I wasn’t really sure when the shaking stopped. The seismologists tell us the quake lasted up to five minutes. Stunned and terrified, not quite believing that the world had ended and I was still alive. Eventually I realized that my car wasn’t acting like a bucking bronco threatening to toss me into a snowbank. Denny, the engineer, ran back into the station and checked for fires and damage to the equipment. The announcer followed. When they signaled an “all clear,” Donna and I went inside.

If I wasn’t already numb, one look at my desk completed the freezing. Lying across my chair and typewriter was the large four-drawer filing cabinet so jammed with paper files it made my fingers hurt to attempt to slide in another sheet. The top drawer landed on my typewriter keys. Had I lingered to put on my shoes, instead of scooping them up and running for the door, my head would have been mashed between the drawer and the typewriter. That was the crash I’d heard as I stepped away from my desk.

The electricity was out, phones didn’t work. Situated on the outskirts of the city, we had little knowledge of damage elsewhere. Our building was okay, the broadcast tower still stood, and we were alive. And darkness would soon shroud our troubled land.

Donna was frantic. She lived not far away in Susitna subdivision. Her kids were at a neighbor’s. I offered to drive her home to check on them. As I drove out the dirt driveway, station manager Jay screeched around the corner in a cloud of dust and came to a frantic stop beside me. “Lots of damage,” he said. “Streets are really torn up, buildings down.” I explained my mission. He nodded, then stomped the accelerator of his Thunderbird and raced to the station.

Donna guided me to her home near the entrance of the subdivision. I was not familiar with this area, and saw little amiss until we arrived at her cul de sac. Behind her home yawned a steep gulch with trees sticking out at peculiar angles. I didn’t have time to ask her if this was normal, because she bolted from the car and raced to her neighbor’s to find her kids.

Example, on a very small scale, of how the earth's surface buckled and cracked, with some slabs thrust upward and some sunken into a fault.

Back at the station, Denny was frantic about his wife and their newborn child. They lived not far away, in the area where I had heard the ladyfinger firecracker popping. He bolted for his car.

My parents lived a little more than a mile away and I went to check on them. The paved section of KFQD Road was a mess. The pavement was buckled and broken, and I frequently had to pull off the road and circle around chunks of asphalt.

My parents' log cabin, built by themselves. It came through the quake undamaged.

All was well with their log home, except a bottle of my mother’s homemade wine had fallen from a shelf and broken. She was mad as a hornet. It was a bit of much needed comic relief. I swapped my Studebaker Lark for dad’s WWII vintage Willys Jeep. I figured I could get anywhere around town with the Jeep’s high clearance and four-wheel drive.

The family's stalwart Willys Jeep got me around my damaged city without failing.

I still needed to check on my apartment, which was located downtown on the west end of Fifth Avenue. In that ever-faithful old Jeep, the first vehicle my parents bought when they came to Alaska in 1948, I started out for downtown Anchorage, several miles away.

Nightfall was rising up from a severely damaged land.

Beneath the surface of Alaska’s seas, bays, fjords, inlets, and arms, huge masses of land shifted andsank, or thrust upwards, in some places as much as 30 feet.. Massive piles of rock, disturbed by the violence of the earth’s tectonic plates battling for supremacy, cascaded into undersea chasms, displacing water in prodigious amounts.

That water had to go somewhere.

(to be continued)


  1. I'll be back to read this when I get home from work. I want to give it my FULL attention.

    Have a great day, Gully and I'll try to do the same. I'm getting too old to be working; my brain doesn't want to be here so it's a constant struggle.

    I should be glad to have a job and I am but...you know...

  2. What a terrifying experience! I imagine the fact that it occurred on Good Friday made it seem very much like the end of the world.

    You didn't crumple under the stress. You stood up and did what was right. You can always feel good about that.

    I'll be hanging on for "the rest of the story."