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

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Day the Earth Broke, Part Three

(Part three of my experiences during and after the Great Alaskan Earthquake of March 27, 1964, follows. The long delay in between episodes was caused by waiting for permission from the Anchorage Museum to use certain photos.)

In my parents’ WWII era Willys jeep, I headed towards my apartment in downtown Anchorage. The normal route I took was straight up KFQD Road (now called Northern Lights Blvd.) a couple miles, left on Spenard Road and down the steep “ess” curves of Romig Hill, across West Chester Creek to L St. at 15th Ave. Then, straight up L St. for ten blocks to Fifth Ave, and a half-block right.

The family Jeep.

The apartment I shared with a girlfriend was located on the upper floor of an old house, a large attic converted into a nice two-bedroom unit. Access was gained by an enclosed, exterior staircase attached to the end of the building.

Five blocks from home I got my first hint of the massive damage that I would see in the next few days. The Four Seasons, a multi-story apartment building newly completed and waiting for tenants, was a pile of rubble at Ninth and L. Only the elevator shaft was intact. The last of the building to topple, it lay at an angle atop the ruins.

Photo of Four Seasons apartments by Alice Waite

Photo of L St. graben, courtesy of Anchorage Museum, B83.91.S4176.58, Ward W. Wells, photographer)

I could drive no farther on L St.. The road ahead was a jumble of fissures and gashes. I drove two blocks east and approached my apartment on Fifth Avenue. My second floor home was now even with the ground. Located smack in the center of a narrow strip of land between two parallel faults, the building had settled about eight feet, perfectly intact but for the exterior staircase I needed to get in my apartment. It had been wrenched from the building and now leaned against it with a wide gap at the bottom.

I parked the Jeep and climbed down into the graben on some slabs of frozen snow and soil. I checked the staircase, took off my high-heels and started up the precariously-leaning steps. I figured the worst that could happen would be a short fall to the ground, followed by a hard bump. Unless another earthquake happened, of course.

When I was close to the top of the steps, I could see the whole thing was hanging on by the tips of nails that had been pulled from the external wall of the house. I had to slam my shoulder against the door to force it open, all the while hoping the jiggling wouldn’t cause the stairwell to fall.

More L St. fault damage, with elevator shaft of Four Seasons apartments in background. Photo by Alice Waite.

Once inside, I felt I was on solid footing. I grabbed a few things from my bedroom, using a flashlight to find warm clothes, jeans, and flat shoes. Then, I had to go down those steps. I made it safely, but I wondered how I was going to be able to move all my belongings out, especially the boxes of books.

The quake had hit near 5:30 p.m. Official sunset time had been an hour after. Twilight lingered for a while, though the day had been overcast and darkness came quicker. By the time got back to the Jeep, it was fully dark.

Damage near L St., Alice Waite, photographer.

Next I made a quick drive around town, and checked on the little house at 15th and E St. that I had moved out of four months prior. It was unoccupied and appeared undamaged. I hoped to move back in. Concerned for the safety of friends in the area, I drove past their homes. In some I saw candlelight. I didn’t stop to visit. Turning the corner near one’s home, I saw more devastation.

The Hillside Apartments, a large apartment building, had sawed itself into ruins, as if the upper floors had moved in an opposing direction than the bottom flows. I had more friends who lived in that building, but no way to check on their safety. It appeared deserted.

Front side of Hillside Apartments. Alice Waite photo.

Back side of Hillside Apartments, Alice Waite photo.

I headed back to the radio station. Denny O’Day, the station engineer, had rushed back into the building after the shaking stopped, shut off the electrical controls and then tried to call his wife at their home nearby. After many rings and no answer, he raced home to check on his wife and four month old daughter. They were safe, he said, but his wife was at one end of their long living room and the baby was in her crib at the other end. That end, he said, white-faced, was suspended in the air. The ground had fallen away from the house. He was able to rescue the baby without the house falling into the large gash in the earth.

This isn't Denny's house, but gives an idea of Turnagain subdivision damage. U.S. Corp of Engineers photo.

Returning to the station, Denny started the emergency generator in the basement and got the station back on air. It was then twenty minutes after the quake. Eventually the other stations in the city began broadcasting.

Denny was also deputy director of the state’s Civil Defense emergency radio network, and had a mobile unit that could connect with emergency frequencies. Immediately, KFQD committed to broadcasting emergency messages only. At 10,000 watts, it was the city’s most powerful radio station.

Soon after my return, we received an emergency message warning of tsunamis. I went to my parents’ home nearby, just as door to door teams arrived to issue a similar notice. We evacuated to a Greek Orthodox Church, the priest of which was a friend of my father’s. There was little to do but wait.

Near eleven p.m., the priest’s son said he was picking up radio broadcasts from San Francisco on his car radio. I went out to listen. I sat in the front passenger seat of his car and heard a radio announcer in San Francisco reporting on massive traffic jams along the shoreside in the city. People were flocking to the shores to watch the threatened tsunami roll in!

(to be continued)

(For a complete and gripping account of the earthquake, please access the following link:



  1. Gullible- This is so facinating to read about. I'm sorry you had to live through it. The pictures speak a thousand words - so much work to rebuild all the structures and infrastructures. Your story compliments it with the affect it had on you and your friend's and family's lives. I don't remember how this affected the Oregon coast, but we must have gotten tsumani warnings there.

  2. I think I'll stick with the tornados, at least they give you a little warning.