By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

A look back at day of 1964 earthquake

Fifty years later, town commemorates disaster milestone


Photo courtesy Valdez Museum

An automobile stuck in a fissure in front of the Saybolt building on Alaska Ave. The stout building was later moved to Hazelet and is now home to J & R plumbing.

It was Good Friday, 1964. Folks went about their daily business in the early evening. Easter was just around the corner and many enjoyed a day off from the usual routine.

The SS Chena was offloading cargo on the dock. Longshoremen were hard at work and a group of children assembled on the scene to get in on the action.

People were settling in the women of the Dorcas Club, a Christian women's club, had spent part of the day boiling 45 dozen eggs for an Easter Egg Hunt scheduled for the next day. The car of Katherine Kennedy was loaded down with eggs to be colored.

The late Dorothy Clifton reported that she had just settled down to read the Valdez news, when she first felt her house begin to move. "I wonder what earth shaking news Walter and Gloria (Day) have put in the paper this week," she joked to her husband when she felt the first movement.

Gloria Day said in a 2013 interview that she'd just dropped the Valdez news off at the Post Office when the earthquake hit.

The late Phyllis Irish told a reporter in 1984 she was working at the Harborview Nursing home when she felt the tentative movements. "I said to myself at last I have felt an earthquake," she said. "But before the thought left my mind the tiles on the floor came right up,"

Soon wave like tremors rippled across the land and water. Buildings began to fall apart and huge fissures appeared in the roads as the earth itself unleashed a violent fury seldom experienced in this world.

In a matter of seconds the violent shaking loosened the unstable sediments upon which the dock was built. Almost 100 million cubic yards of rock and sediment let go and cruelly plunged into the sea. All 27 people were washed away when the dock disappeared into the turbulent waters. The Chena rode a rush of water, estimated at 30 feet, went up into the air and came back down to rest where the dock and 27 people just stood.

What many think of as a tsunami or tidal wave was actually a type of underground avalanche survivors say, and that much of the water damage after the quake was caused by broken water mains and an unusually high tide that evening.

People abandoned cars, searched for children as panic ensued when the movement would not stop.

The entire village of Chenega was flattened as people scattered, trying to find their children as homes collapsed and water filled the island. Twenty-three villagers, men, women and children, lost their lives that day.

The US Coast Guard Cutter Storis, on patrol outside of Dutch Harbor, received the first radio traffic from the Chena, "MAY DAY! MAY DAY! MAY DAY! THIS IS....." before static took over. It did not take long to find out what was happening.

Chuck Volanti, a former Coast Guard member who was in Valdez in the aftermath of the earthquake and lost colleagues in the plane crash in the days following the shaker, said images of the 1964 quake still haunt him to this day.

The North Pacific Search & Rescue began receiving reports from Kodiak SAR "Ham radio operator reports Valdez damage due to earthquake and tidal wave."

The Fishing Vessel Marpet reported "The village of Chenega is completely wiped out by a tidal wave. There are so many injuries.... There is only one house left standing. "

The Chena, which survived the initial wave of water reported "The town of Valdez, Alaska just burst into flames. The whole dock afire and the tanks at Union and the other docks have started to burn. We are anchoraged one half mile from shore."

The news got worse. Yukataga Civil Air Patrol reported to Kodiak SAR "Chenega Desperate."

There was no time to mourn. The townsfolk of Valdez sought shelter up the road when and where they could, in Glennallen, Fairbanks, even the Tsaina Lodge, which was owned by one Josephine Johnson at the time. Homes along the Richardson Highway posted signs, "Can take three" and "Room for two."

Those who stayed behind tried to put the pieces back together amid the aftershocks and rubble. Giant waves periodically overtook the town, which in parts was two and a half feet under water.

Governor Bill Egan, a Valdez resident, came from Juneau to assess the damage. He later told reporters that to his amazement, the town was already trying to put itself back together on Easter Sunday. He said he saw John Kelsey and Owen Johnson hauling gravel to fill holes and fissures on walkways and the former road to the dock.

However, plans to rebuild the town at its former site were not to be. The Army Core of Engineers determined the land that was formerly home to so many was too unstable to risk ever building on it again.

Some thirty odd buildings that survived the quake were later relocated five miles east, onto what was known as the Hazelet and Meals property, owned by the Port of Valdez Company, made up of descendants of Valdez pioneers George Hazelet and Andrew Jackson Meals.

The spirit of those who rebuilt Valdez lives on today, as those who survived, their descendants and many a newcomer continues to call this vibrant little town home.

At 9.2 on the Richter scale, it remains the largest earthquake recorded in North America. It was centered 56 miles west of Valdez according to the US Geological survey. Worldwide, only the 9.5 Chilean earthquake of 1960 was stronger. Statewide, 131 people lost their lives.

Photo courtesy Valdez Museum

The Union Oil Tank Farm caught on fire shortly after the earthquake and burned for three days before running out of fuel.


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