The Big 1964 Alaska Earthquake–My Memories

The Big Alaska Earthquake–My Memories
Good Friday, March 27, 1964
The Family: Frank and Phyllis Minish, with Four Children

Linda A. {Minish} {Mock} Wingfield

I was 14 years old and in the 8th grade when the earthquake happened. It was a school holiday–the Friday before Easter. I am now 69 years old, and some of these memories are fuzzy enough that they may be slightly incorrect. They may not coincide exactly with the memories from other people in our family. I’ll endeavor, however, to keep things as accurate as possible, according to my own memory.

We four kids (Gary, Frank, Cindi, and I) had been home all day, due to the holiday. By the time the quake happened, both Mom and Dad had been in town (we lived at our homesite, two miles out on the highway from Old Valdez) all day. Both of them had had to work that day. Before getting home that evening, they had done the weekly grocery shopping, which had included several dozen eggs to color for Easter. I remember looking forward to doing that on Saturday.

The Chena (a big supply ship) was at the Big Dock, so Daddy had been going to eat a quick dinner and then return to town, where he always longshored for extra money when the ships came in. He told us that our “next-door” neighbors (the Stuarts, who lived across the creek from us) had all stayed in town, because Smokey was longshoring for the first time, and Daddy had told him he could give their kids a ride on a forklift, like he always did for us when we were there. He wanted to get back as quickly as possible, so he could make sure that ride would happen for them.

My brother Gary (who was not quite 13) was outside chopping wood. I was washing dishes. I’m sure we were both supposed to have gotten those chores done BEFORE our parents returned, but you know how that can go. We were being busy little bees when they drove up. They had just gotten home, and the groceries were all on the table waiting to be put away, when everything began to shake.

Living in Alaska since 1951, we weren’t unfamiliar with earthquakes, so at first we all just went about our business. Within 30 seconds or so, however, we all realized that it wasn’t just a regular, run-of-the-mill quake. It was much more serious. For one thing, the noise was deafening. Also, the motion kept changing from up-and-down to sideways, and back again, over and over again.

Daddy yelled for all of us to get under the big archway leading from the kitchen to the dining room. He had built that house, and (like everything he ever built) it was very solid. He knew how heavily he had reinforced all the doorway headers (he always thought ahead to things like snow load–he was an excellent carpenter). So Mom, Frank, Cindi, and I tried to stay in that doorway. Daddy stood in front of us, by the kitchen table, trying to shield us from whatever he thought might endanger us.

Gary came running, trying to get through the door into the porch, which adjoined the kitchen. There were windows running all the way across the kitchen, right up to the door between the two rooms. We could see Gary hanging onto the doorknob as hard as he could. That door was designed to swing inwards, which is generally the case in places where the snow can pile up like it does in Valdez, and he would swing inward with the door. Just as soon as he would try to let go and get over to us, though, the door would swing back…not only shut, but…swinging outward! That was the most terrifying thing I had ever seen. I remember screaming for him to, “Get inside, Gary! Get inside!” He was doing all he could to do so, and finally, with Dad’s help, he was able to join us.

Then even more terrifying things happened. Being the end of March, we had about 14-ft. snowbanks on either side of our driveway, from where Daddy had been using his snowblower all winter. Thankfully, that year he had had that machine, and could drive right up to the house. That hadn’t always been the case.

During the first couple of minutes of shaking, we could see those snowbanks and our car outside of the windows. Just about the time Gary got inside and “safe,” suddenly we were plunged into blackness, and then we could see outside again. Daddy yelled that we had been underground. That happened at least three times that I can remember, over the next few minutes.

In the meantime, Daddy again yelled for us to get to safety–this time under the very heavy-duty round table he had built for us in the dining room. We laugh about it, now, but at the time, we had all we could do to just keep crawling all over the floor, trying to keep up with that table!

Who would have thought that four minutes and 38 seconds (that felt like months, if not years, to us right then), could wreak so much havoc?! Even when the shaking finally stopped (until the first aftershock), the disaster wasn’t over.

Suddenly, Daddy basically screamed at us, “Everyone! Get in the car…NOW!!!” Everyone headed for the door, except me. I had spotted the borrowed accordion I had been practicing with, earlier in the day, on a chair near my music stand, down in our “sunken” living room. I had no idea that that living room was about to get sunken for real, in about four feet of dirty, sludgy, glacial mire! I have no idea why I focused on that accordion (which hadn’t fallen off its chair, which is still a wonder to me) right at that moment, but I was determined to get it to safety on top of the table!

As I reached it, and Daddy came running for me to get ME to safety, my stockinged feet started getting soaked with the terrible, muddy, cold water, that was already pouring into that lower room. Together, we got the accordion onto the table (he didn’t have much choice, since I was carrying it, and he was pulling me).

Then he rushed me to the car, and as we both slammed our doors (already running through water gushing from underneath the huge snowbanks, he started the engine and started backing out toward the circular part of our driveway where he could make the backing turn and then head up to the highway on the slanted part of it. When he reached the turnaround area, we felt a couple of BIG bumps, but he kept gunning the engine and kept the wheels turning, and we finally got to the top of our driveway, where we were forced to stop–thankfully in time to keep the front end of the car from heading into the HUGE crevice between the end of our driveway and the highway.

The crevice was nearly five feet across, and we had no way to get the car onto the highway. Daddy had a shovel in the car (in the winter he always carried one, and extra chains, in case he had to help someone out of a snowdrift somewhere). Mom got out and tried to help him throw snow into the crevice. Soon, though, they got back into the car. They kept saying that they couldn’t even hear the snow and/or rocks they threw in, hit bottom, anywhere.

By then, except for the minor noise of the continuing aftershocks every little while, things were rather eerily quiet. Mom and Dad said many times, in later years, that they looked back and remembered that even earlier that day, there had been no regular animal activity, and our own animals had been really jumpy. Animals always seem to know when some sort of disaster is coming.

Suddenly, Mom looked toward town, and quietly said, “Frank…look at the light on the mountains.” Of course, we all looked, and it was obvious to all of us (well…Cindi was only five, and probably didn’t realize it right then), that a good part of the town must have been on fire. We didn’t know that it was the tank farm.

Daddy decided to try again, to do something to get us across that crevice. In the meantime, Mom took Gary and me down to the house to get food and what clothing we might be able to find. We actually were able to get all the groceries, and found that not a single egg had broken! How strange! We were able to get clean dry clothing for everyone except me. My drawers were on the bottom of Cindi’s and my dresser, and everything in them was soaking wet and muddy. The others already had on shoes that weren’t too bad, so when they got dry socks they were good, but my shoes had been in the living room, along with that (safe and dry) accordion, and though I found them stuck in the mud somewhere in one of those rooms, they were also soaking wet and muddy.

Mom did get blankets and pillows in one of our trips back and forth, so we at least had something with which to bundle up in the car. Daddy didn’t want to keep it running very much, because he wasn’t sure when or where we’d be able to get more gas, so we huddled, to keep as warm as we could.

Gary and I (and probably Mom) were terrified of the subsequent trips we had to make to the house and back to the car, because down at the bottom of the driveway, we had found another chasm. We were able to get across that one, by jumping, and I think Mom found some boards to put over it after the first jump across, but we could tell that the only way we had gotten across it with the car, was probably because the water had been rushing through that newborn gully so fast that it had carried us across on the water!!!

While Mom and I made our final trip down there, Daddy sent Gary over to the Stuart’s house, because the dogs over there were barking like crazy. Gary was always good friends with all the dogs (ours and theirs included). I don’t remember exactly what he found there, but I think he just had to set the dogs free because they were trapped somewhere. I know the house had been a mess. He should be able to tell that part of the story.

By the time we all got settled back into the car the best we could, we started seeing the first of many vehicles pouring out of town, headed (we heard from the families within the vehicles) for six-mile hill, which was known to be on bedrock. There was also a water supply there, from the waterfall across the road from the small picnic area. Even in March, that water was usually running, and I believe it was.

After many cars (I can’t recall how many) went by, a few stopping long enough to tell us more about what had been happening in town, Harvey Stelling and his family came by, in his towtruck. He also had some long boards. He and Daddy got those boards situated over the crevice, and Harvey pulled our car slowly out over that hole, onto the highway. I don’t remember if we stayed in it, or if we stood by and watched. I do remember being more and more terrified as everything began to set in, mentally.

At some point during that time when the cars were going by, we learned that anyone who had been on the docks at the time was probably gone. Some people had been close enough to know what had happened there with the tsunami (we didn’t have a name for that until much later, of course–people were just calling it a “big wave”). We knew, then, that probably all of Smokey’s family, including him, his wife, their four children, and his wife’s two brothers who had been visiting them) were probably gone. We found out later, that that, indeed, was the case.

We drove on up to the by-then-very-crowded six-mile picnic area, and we stayed for a short time, but Daddy was worried about vagrants and looting. He had been in disaster areas (and a war) before, and even though most of our small town’s population was well-known to us, we usually did have some drifters passing through. He was worried that someone would make it out as far as our place and decide to make use of the premises. Everything we had was invested in that place, such as it was, and he was bound and determined to protect his property.

So…we drove back and parked on the highway, right on the verge, just past our driveway (heading toward six-mile). By that time, I guess I was at the end of my tether. I remember breaking down and crying. I think it must have been more than just crying. From what Mom described in later days, evidently I was pretty hysterical. She finally gave me half of a prescription sleeping pill she had in her purse. The next thing I knew, it was morning, and we kids were all stirring and wondering what we had to eat. Life goes on.

A side effect of that night that I will always carry as a reminder, was that I woke up that morning with a strip of totally white hair from the roots out about 1″ (my hair grows about 1″/month–about double the average hair growth). Over the months after the quake, that one patch of hair grew out completely white. It never changed back to its original color. When beauticians would ask me about it when I was in my 20s, I’d tell them the story of the Big 1964 Alaska Earthquake. Before I was 30 years old, I was almost totally grey/white-haired.

Throughout the day after the quake, we heard more and more of the horror stories from the other people in town, as people (mostly the men) headed back into town to see what could be done immediately for housing and food for a whole community that was missing a lot of its people…we didn’t know how many at that point.

By evening, we were told that at least all of the women and children should head for Tonsina Lodge where the proprietors had kindly agreed to let any of us stay for at least one night. I think it was the next day, or possibly the day after that, that we were all sent to Glenallen, to the high school, where we registered as survivors, and it was decided what was to be done with everyone.

Our family and quite a few others (I can’t remember exactly who) were graciously hosted at the nearby boarding school (I can’t remember its name…lots of blankness about those things) near Copper Center. Unfortunately, we had to leave our dogs (which we had taken with us) in Glenallen. Gary, especially, was devastated over that. I believe we stayed at the school about five days. Finally it was decided that Mom would take us to Fairbanks, where planes had been arranged to fly people down to Seattle, and then to whichever locations people wanted/needed. We were bused to Fairbanks. (The reason it was Fairbanks, was that it had received far less damage than had Anchorage.)

After a few days at a hotel in Fairbanks, Mom saw the three younger kids off on a plane for Seattle, and from there to Aberdeen, South Dakota, where they stayed alternately with our two sets of grandparents until we picked them up during the summer. She then headed back for Valdez to help with whatever recovery efforts would be ongoing after that.

I was allowed to stay in Fairbanks (actually in College), with a friend whom I’d met during my first two years in the Alaska Spelling Bee. I had already won the 1964 Bee in Valdez, and was slated to go to the State one again, that spring. Diane Dart and her family (who owned the roadhouse at Manley Hot Springs–where they lived during the summers–the school there is called the Gladys Dart School, after Diane’s mom) took me in and let me stay there with them and attend school with Diane at Main Jr. High, where I graduated to high school level.

That huge school was terrifying to me at first, but I grew to love it. Everyone there was wonderfully kind to me, and I enjoyed my time there very much. The Kiwanis club from Fairbanks gave me a “scholarship” to go to the Spelling Bee to represent Valdez, so Diane (representing Fairbanks) and I traveled together and stayed with Mae and Bruce Kendall and family (the Kendalls had previously owned the Valdez Hotel, and then owned the Roosevelt Hotel in Anchorage) for the three days of the Bee. I had stayed with them the two previous years, as well, and they graciously invited Diane to join me that year. The Kendall’s home had been devastated in the quake, also, but they had found a new home by then, with plenty of room for us both to stay.

As soon as school was out for the summer, Mom and Dad picked me up and we headed down the AlCan Highway for Aberdeen, South Dakota (which is where they were both born and raised). While spending a week there before heading home again as a complete family, we also saw tornadoes and some HUGE hail that left dents in our car! We also narrowly avoided a tornado on the way home, in Canada, just south of Edmonton!

For a family already stressed by one natural disaster, those events were huge and scary. On top of that, we also had one night of camping in which huge caterpillars overran our tent and crawled into our sleeping bags (yuck).

I don’t remember much else about that summer, except for one thing. We were making do and living out at two-mile, when one day Gordy Brunton came running down the somewhat-less-elevated hill toward the house. He had been working with the Coast and Geodetic Survey people, deciding what parts of the highway would need repair, and how much it would cost. He was “white as a ghost,” as my mom put it.

He told us in no uncertain terms, that we must, “Pack up and get out of here!” He said that they had put instruments down through small crevices in the road, and for miles before and after our house, there was nothing but space. They couldn’t find a bottom to what was obviously a very large mass of monster caverns, after all the glacier silt had been flushed out the night of the quake.

By that time, there were rental mobile homes available in town, for people who worked for the State, over by the old apartment complex that had been turned into the temporary State Highways Department. Mom was eligible, and we ended up in one of the trailers, just behind the Huddleston’s home, which had survived quite well. We lived in the trailer court there until Daddy built the small house (which later became his shop area after he built the larger house next to it), on Oumalik St, on the parcel in New Valdez that had been allotted to us.

I only lived there (in the small house) about a year, before I met and soon married Jim Mock at the new Episcopal Church in the new town. From there, I have many more stories about living in Alaska, but that’s the end of my personal 1964 Alaska Earthquake story.


05/02/2019 Addition, for some references to the places I’ve talked about in the above narrative:

“Old Town Walking Tour” (by the Valdez Museum)

2 Replies to “The Big 1964 Alaska Earthquake–My Memories”

  1. BH–Very ironic, indeed! I think some people, at the time, were comparing those dates. Actually, though, “Good Friday” and the day of resurrection were probably at the other end of our year, and the same for Christmas, if you study out the actual old calendars and the locations. 😉

    I know it sure FELT like the end of our world was coming for a bit…pretty scary.

    One thing that I have thought about a lot, over the years since then, is that going through something like that at such a young age, rather makes the rest of life a bit easier, since I can definitely look back and say, “Hey! I survived THAT…so I can survive THIS.” 🙂

  2. I read this awhile ago but I guess I forgot to comment… Either that or I forgot to click “Post Comment” …

    anyway, that earthquake must have really been something to experience. You were lucky to have your father there with you to keep ya’ll safe…

    It occurred on Good Friday? How ironic in a way… Good Friday was the day the Lord died on the cross and once he died, there was an “earthquake” (the ground shook)… hm… coincidence or just plain ironic?

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