The 64 Earthquake Commemoration
– Heidi Zemach for SCN –
The 50th anniversary of the March 27 1964 Good Friday Earthquake was marked by an event at the Seward Museum Library that was heartfelt, upbeat, and where many stories were shared and questions asked. A standing-room crowd of all ages packed the Community Room and foyer Thursday afternoon at the same time as the earth began to shake fifty years ago. Some 15-20 of the hundreds there had experienced the quake first-hand, while the rest were learning about its lasting impacts for the first time.
The commemoration began at 5:30 p.m. with the Seward Community Choir singing the Alaska Flag Song, followed by a reading of the names and brief stories about the 13 residents who died, and how they died. Then followed a new film short by Kris Peck that the library had commissioned, narrated by Lee Poleske, and featuring the experiences of the quake through the eyes of the children’s still-vibrant crayon drawings. Blended with the narrative, these vibrant crayon-illustrations, created soon after the catastrophic ’64 event, provided a moving, detailed account of the experience that spared no details: the great fire along the waterfront, boats and trucks being washed through town, the earth splitting asunder, homes collapsing and people being swallowed up by tidal waves.
Seward had been shaken by many small earthquakes before, and knew about them, and about “tidal waves,” as they were called back then, said Seavey, who was a high school teacher newly arrived in town. But people didn’t really think that an earthquake that devastating would occur in their lifetime. It was the Cold War Era, and a bigger fear for people was of nuclear bombs lobbed their way, or an Alaska invasion.
“We were more concerned about the Russians!” exclaimed Margaret Anderson.
Seavey thumbed through his old grade book of the time, reading out the grades some of the students had received soon after the quake, and worried letters he received from family back home.
“It was a good move to keep the school open,” he said. It helped many people to stay in town to see the early stages of its recovery. The brave, caring community spirit that arose after the quake probably cemented his own and wife Shirley’s decision to stay in Seward for the long term, he said. Seavey’s still proud of his former high school students who volunteered to drive honey-bucket wagons around town to empty people’s waste when their plumbing was destroyed, and the student with an artesian well behind his home who delivered fresh, clean water to his fellow community members.
Many longshoremen who were offered similar jobs elsewhere left town, but quite a few maintained their Seward residency, and left for other jobs only to maintain their status with the union, said Margaret Anderson. “That’s what caused the community to survive,” she said.
Dorothy Urbach, who was working in her family stored, described the sound of the earthquake as a freight train coming through the street. The light fixtures came down, and the big shoe wall came down, and then the great fire started just down the street. It was time to leave.
She too remains impressed by the way the community pulled together in those desperate first weeks. Even her normally “ditzy” friend was calm as she could be, and did what needed to be done, she joked. Together, these women cooked at Thorns, they cooked a cake, butchered 20,000 chickens whose farm had been destroyed, and served them up to local residents who had lost their homes.
“Things came back so fast, nothing was lost,” Urbach said. There was also a lot of humor expressed. She remembers people joking about their boats that were picked up by the tidal waves and hurled through town. Men compared notes saying; “My boat went further than your boat.”
Beverly Dunham, whose home was ripped apart, agreed.
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” she said, not even joking. During the recovery efforts she became “the spy” for the U.S. Department of Urban Renewal, with the task of keeping the agency informed on what projects her fellow Seward residents were planning. In that capacity, she actually able to save the town quite a bit of money, she said.
Several in the audience also stepped forward to offer their own stories. Caroline Toloff served on the “Presumptive Death Hearings” in Seward, formed to legally declare the deaths of those missing stemming from the ’64 Good Friday events. The judge was in his nineties, and had personally experienced the great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, she remembers. This was his last legal case in his career, and it took a week to 10 days to establish all of the deaths, Toloff said.
Doug McCrae and his sister Linda McSwain had the ultimate escape story, which she let McCrae tell. They remember their large extended family cramming into their Red Corvair Chevrolet, and their father driving faster than they’d ever seen him drive to get to the north end of town in reverse, away from an oncoming wall of mud. A tsunami wave lifted up their truck, and moved it about 300 yards.
“We took a wild, wild ride, spinning and bouncing off trees,” McCrae said. It wedged them into a strand of trees, but they were eventually able to scramble atop a house in their subdivision that remained intact at the head of the bay, and camp out on its roof overnight, as one terrifying wave after another battered them. The group of 8-10 people there included McCrae’s first wife and his 27-day old son. At one point they built a fire for warmth. But when it began lightly snowing, already soaked through, and with water up to their knees on that roof, they took an axe and broke through the fiberglass insulation and climbed down to shelter on the floor below. Their skin was red from fiberglass for the next four to five days, McCrae said, but they survived.