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

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Nice Day for a Drive Journals, Ch. 3, Hurricane Gulch

(Yes, you've read these introductory paragraphs before, but in a different context.  Read on.)

Late Friday afternoon, nearing 5:30, and I’m on the phone with the Alaska State Police dispatcher, taking notes about a man who died after falling from Hurricane Gulch bridge on the Alaska railroad, a fall of almost 300 feet.  I’m a reporter for KFQD radio station, busy getting local news written and wrapped up for the 6 o’clock newscast.

Then, breaking news changes everything. 

The day was Good Friday, March 27, 1964, at 5:36 in the afternoon, and the largest earthquake ever recorded in North America shook the bejesus out of us for five and a half minutes, reaching a magnitude of 9.2.   Today it ranks second to a 1960 earthquake of 9.5 magnitude in Chile in a list of worst earthquakes recorded in the world.

I think about that day and that unfortunate man who fell to his death every time I cross steel arch Hurricane Gulch highway bridge on the Parks Highway.   At 558 long, it’s half the length of the bridge over the Susitna River South near Talkeetna, but it’s a jaw-dropping 254 feet above Hurricane Creek below.  There are 40 bridges to cross on the highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, and this is the most spectacular by far.

You can't see the bottom of the gulch in this shot, but is does justice to the steepness.

Standing on the bridge (a big no-no) looking down, and you still can't see the bottom.

Looking downstream, trying to get the bottom of the Gulch and the Alaska range mountains in the same shot, and not succeeding.

The highway trestle, from which the man fell, is almost 300 feet above the lowest point.

This photo is of the 1921 construction of the railroad trestle over Hurricane Gulch.

Hurricane Gulch sneaks up on the unwary driver who isn’t expecting a massive slice in the land as he passes the Talkeetna mountain range on the east.   Most likely the driver’s attention is ahead and to the left, searching for glances of Mount Denali.

For those in the know, however, there are large parking lots on each end of the bridge for those who must try to photograph the bridge and the steepness of the Gulch.   It’s almost an impossible task to get both the bridge and creek below in the view at the same time.

File:Hurricane Gulch, Parks Highway, Alaska.jpg
Photo from Wikimedia Commons, (C) Arthur D. Chapman and Audrey Bendus

Byway Standard Map

You'll see Hurricane Gulch marked on the map.   Follow the red line from the bottom upwards.  It's just above the Denali View North campground and wayside.   How many highway maps across the US mark a bridge location?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Rockin’ and Rollin’ Alaskan Style

(All of the photos in this post were taken by my uncle, Ross Robey, except as otherwise attributed.)


It’s late Friday afternoon, just after 5:30.  I’m on the phone with the Alaska State Police dispatcher, taking notes about a man who fell to his death from Hurricane Gulch railroad bridge, a fall of almost 300 feet.  I’m a reporter for KFQD radio station, busy getting local news written and wrapped up for the major 6 o’clock newscast.

Then, breaking news changes everything.

That day was Good Friday, March 27, 1964, at 5:36 in the afternoon when the largest earthquake ever recorded in North America shook the bejesus out of us for five and a half minutes, reaching a magnitude of 9.2.   Today it ranks second to a 1960 earthquake of 9.5 magnitude in Chile in a list of worst earthquakes recorded in the world.

But, we weren’t looking for a Guinness Book of  World Records during those minutes.  We were praying the shaking would stop before the earth broke apart and all life ceased to exist.

When the earthquake began with the gentle shaking we were accustomed to in this land that is in the Ring of Fire, I looked across the office and smiled ruefully at another woman who was still there.   Let’s call her Bonnie, because I’ve forgotten her real name.  I went back to my telephone call to the state troopers.

The shaking continued, growing stronger.  Much later the geologists and seismologists would tell us that this was a megathrust incident, that the suboceanic Pacific tectonic plate fault ruptured where it had been subducting under the North American plate.   Those esoteric scientific terms meant nothing to us in those moments and, in fact, plate tectonics was still geologic theory that most of us had never heard of.

FAA control tower at Anchorage International Airpot

Another view of Anchorage International Airport control tower.

All we knew was that this was no “normal” earthquake.  Another glance at Bonnie.  My typewriter was on a small stand at a right angle to my desk and its back abutted Bonnie’s desk.   When I faced the typewriter and Bonnie, a four-drawer steel filing cabinet was immediately at my back.   That cabinet was so jammed with paper, it hurt my fingers to add another page to it.

And then things really got to rockin’ and rollin’.  I heard a noise in the small hallway outside our office, a low rumbling that I couldn’t identify but later discovered was produced by a four-foot high safe dislodged from its place and now blocked the door to the studio where announcer Ron Moore, also known as The Royal Coachman, was on the air.

Part of the L St. fault.

Station engineer Dennis ran out the front door of the station screaming, “My tower, my tower!!!”

Right behind him was Ron, who had escaped the studio through another door.   He was yelling, “Out!   Everybody get out.”  

Bonnie and I were no longer smiling.  I reached down, grabbed my high-heeled shoes, and headed for the front door in as straight a line as I could given that the floor wouldn’t hold still.  Bonnie was a couple steps behind me.   I heard a crash, but didn’t look back.   

Apartment building on 16th Ave. where some of my friends lived.

Another view of same building.

Outside the building, we had to get down a dozen snow- and ice-covered concrete steps with no handrails.   Ron and another announcer were there to assist us.   I made it down to the parking lot all right, a feat I probably couldn’t have accomplished on my own had I been wearing those shoes.   The shaking increased so much that Bonnie had trouble and relied on the men’s assistance.

I staggered across the bucking parking area to my car, where I held onto the door handle to stand up.   Across KFQD road, in the area of two new subdivisions  came loud popping noises like thousands of lady finger firecrackers exploding.

Incredibly, the shaking got worse.   The station’s antenna tower was whipping back and forth.  I estimated the distance between it and me and decided I was safe should it come down in my direction.   I looked around.  Everything looked normal otherwise.  Then I looked at the ground beneath my feet and saw small cracks and mini-fissures opening and closing in the hard-packed snow.


This USGS photo shows a portion of the 4th Avenue fault.  This is where I walked down the slabs of broken asphalt and into several of the sunken businesses.   The businesses beyond this sunken area have also fallen a full story.

A potion of 4th Ave. downtown, where the street split in half and the northern side slumped a full level.
Half a lifetime later, during which I was positive the world was coming to an end, the shaking slo-o-o-w-ly diminished.  I’m not sure when it stopped because by then my internal gyroscope was so unbalanced I sensed the earth shivering and vibrating continually for days.   I wasn’t mistaken.  In the first day alone there were eleven major aftershocks measuring more than 6.2, followed by nine more in the first three weeks.  But there were thousands of aftershocks of less than that magnitude as the plates adjusted to their new positions.   Eighteen months later, more than ten thousand aftershocks had been recorded.

And each one of them rammed my heart into my throat and stopped my breathing.

More of the 4th Ave. slump/

When the shaking stopped enough that Friday and I could stand without hanging onto my car, Dennis and the men went back into the building to start the emergency generator and get the station back on the air, which they did in less than a half hour.  The station then went into Civil Defense mode.

I went back in and stopped short when I saw what had happened.   That crash I heard when I was two steps out of my chair was that heavy filing cabinet falling onto my chair with the top drawer smashed into my typewriter.   I shivered to think what would have happened had I not jumped out of that chair when I did.

Another view of the 4th Ave. damage

Bonnie was concerned about her kids so I gave her a ride to her house.  She lived on a cul de sac in a Turnagain subdivision.  I dropped her off and continued around the circle.  Later she told me the whole circle drive had collapsed right after I’d cleared it.  When I had time to think about it, I realized that I had escaped injury or worse twice—from the filing cabinet and the collapse of the road.

With some difficulty, due to the frequent pavement breaks and berms pushed up in the roads, I went to my parents’ house and switched my Studebaker Lark for the WWII era Willy Jeep they had.   Then I drove into downtown Anchorage to Fifth Ave and K Street, where I shared an attic apartment with a girlfriend.  

Only the elevator shaft of the brand new, unoccupied Four Seasons Apartment building remain.

As I pulled up in front of the house, my second floor apartment was now at ground level.  Incredibly,  a graben—like a wide trench-- had opened through the L St. area and the house sank about ten feet in the exact middle of it.  The house was perfectly intact, except for the exterior staircase to my apartment.  It had wrenched away from the building and was askew to the wall.

Still in my dress and high heels, I climbed down into that graben and started up the enclosed stairway, even though the bottom of it was more than eighteen inches away from the wall.   At the top, I saw the staircase was hanging on by the tip of the nails that had once fastened it securely to the wall.   I quickly changed into jeans and warmer clothes and better shoes, grabbed a few things I needed, and eased my way down those stairs

Government Hill Elementary school, broken in half by a fault underneath it.   School was closed because it was Good Friday.

I drove around town, surveying some of the damage, and checking on friends.  I saw the portion of Fourth Ave. that had collapsed, walked down a large slab of asphalt, and picked my way through the eerie remains of the men’s store there.  I drove out to Turnagain and stood on a newly-created bank above the ruins of dozens of nice homes, now all jumbled and wracked and ruined.

Late that night I went to my parents’ house to stay the night.  Volunteers arrived warning us to head for high ground because a tsunami was possible.   The whole idea sounded impossible to us because we were about a mile inland, but because Fish Creek ran through the back yard, we decided to leave.   We went to a church on Spenard Road, where the Orthodox priest was a friend of my father’s.   The priest’s son was able to pick up San Francisco on the radio in his Lincoln and we sat in the car listening to reports of massive traffic jams caused by spectators going down to the water’s edge to watch the tsunami.

Another view of Government Hill Elementary School.

I interviewed a teenaged boy who had been with three of his friends in the downtown J.C.Penney store on that Good Friday afternoon, a day off from school.  The four boys, boisterous as teenaged boys can be, clambered into the elevator.   The door slid closed.

Then the lights went out and the elevator car started slamming against the walls.   The boys were terrified and convinced that their clowning around had caused whatever damage was occurring.  They had no way of knowing that giant slabs of concrete were breaking away from the building’s fa├žade and crashing onto the street below, smashing cars and killing the unsuspecting.  


This Wide World photo shows men escaping from J.C. Penney store DURING the earthquake.

Front side of the J.C. Penney store.  Alaska National Guardsmen keep spectators out of the area.  There was NO looting after the quake.   None.

Another view of the J.C. Penney building.

Another view of the J.C. Penney store, after the debris and wrecked cars were cleaned up.

I spent nights at the Anchorage Police Department building at Sixth and C St., relaying civil defense emergency notices and personal messages to frantic relatives via KFQD.  One morning when I was going off shift at the police station, I noticed the Salvation Army was passing out sandwiches and coffee to any and all who were hungry.  That definitely included  me,  and the raisin bread and salami sandwich a volunteer gave me remains a fond memory.

During the day, I slept on the living room couch at my parents’ house because it was only feet from the front door.  By Friday, a week after the quake, I had enough courage to sleep in my old bedroom.   That’s where I was when a major aftershock of more than 8 slammed the house.

This used to be a nice home in a well-tended subdivision with paved streets.

More homes damaged in Turnagain subdivision

I intended to move back into a small house at 15th and E St. that I had rented previously, and was waiting for the electricity to come back on so I would have heat and water.  During that first week after the quake, I managed to pack up all my belongings at the apartment and move them down that dangerous staircase, carry them up the sidewall of the graben, and stuff them into the Jeep.  That included dozens of boxes of heavy books.

Thursday noonish, six days after the quake, I was at that house moving in more stuff when I heard a loud explosion.   I ran outside and saw smoke a few blocks away.   When I arrived at the scene I saw a house completely engulfed in fire.  Some of the occupants had escaped, but one did not.  The cause was attributed to a gas line damaged during the quake.

I did an on-air report, of which I remember little, but friends who heard it said it was “gripping.”  

Damaged homes in Turnagain subdivision.

Eventually things settled down, and life returned to the new normal.  Months later, I was in the Carr’s Grocery store on Gambell when a woman approached and asked if  I remembered what I was doing when the The Quake hit.

I did not and she reminded me.  She was the dispatcher at the trooper’s station who had been telling me about the unfortunate man who had fallen off the Hurricane Gulch railroad bridge.

Remember those loud popping noises I heard during the quake, the ones that sounded like inch-long Lady Finger firecrackers exploding?   They were the sounds of homes breaking apart in the subdivisions across KFQD Road when the land beneath them liquefied.   Today that damaged area is called Earthquake Park.


One hundred and thirty-one people died as a result of the quake, most;y due to resulting tsunamis.   Incredibly, the death toll in Anchorage was only nine and all were a direct result of the quake.   Four died at a beach park in Oregon and 12 in Crescent City, California, in tsunamis.

Several fishing boats sank in Louisiana, and water in wells sloshed in South Africa.   The entire globe vibrated as a result of this massive earthquake, according to scientists.

This home used to be far inland on the high cliff overlooking Cook Inlet.  Many homes disappeared into the cold murky waters.   Visible is a small potion of a debris field in the water after the quake.

Second floor damage to West Anchorage High School.  The upper floor was subsequently removed and the school operates today.  Photo below, from Alaska Digital Archives, shows back side of the high school. 

Damage in the railroad yards of Anchorage Cold Storage building.

L St. fault

L St. fault

McKinley building on 4th  Ave. showing exterior damage.

Store fronts on 4th Ave.

Four Seasons apartment bldg. and the elevator shaft.

L St. fault

 L St. fault.  Note the suspended sidewalk.

4th. Avenue damage.

L St. fault

4th Ave. danage

 Four Season apartment bldg. and elevator shaft.

4th Avenue

4th Avenue. Tall building is Anchorage-Westward Hotel, now a Hilton Hotel.

L St. fault with Four Seasons elevator shaft upper right.

Unidentified.  I think this is a new car dealership building on E. 5th Ave.


4th Avenue

 L St. fault

L St. fault

4th Avenue.

The marquee of the Denali Theater is now at street level on 4th Avenue.

More L St. fault


This United Press International (UPI) photo shows how 4th Avenue broke in half and the northern side sank.  I walked down that asphalt slab and into the sunken businesses.


This Steve McCutcheon photo is of the ruined and intact parst of the Turnagain subdivision.  Also visible is the wreckage of homes that went into Cook Inlet.  This area used to be as neatly laid out as the portion above it. This photo was taken after access trails were bulldozed into the debris field.