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Tsunami Guest Book
THE EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI OF 1964
by Bob Leonard, Pilot, Kodiak Airways
Eight Hundred feet below me, the water of the Ouzinkie Narrows lay cold and gray. I glanced towards Pleasant Harbor in the distance, not knowing that young Chris Opheim was hanging onto a piece of equipment in his Fatherís Saw Mill, the ground rolling and shaking violently, the Saw Mill starting to shed some of its roof.
It was 5:36 in the afternoon on Good Friday, March 27th, 1964. Another forty years and nine months would elapse before the Earth would shake, tremble and roll and launch a series of Seismic Waves similar to what I would experience during the next 30 hours or so. Unlike this Alaskan quake with its 114 deaths, the catastrophic quake and tsunami, [in Indonesia] which occurred on December 26th 2004, left hundreds of thousands dead.
During the next seventy-two hours Kodiak Island would experience fifty-two aftershocks. Ten of these occurred within the first twenty-four hours. Eleven aftershocks were over 6.0 on the Richter Scale, the largest being 6.7 in magnitude.
My wife and our two small children were at home when the quake hit. This is how she coped with this violent quake.
Bending down to place a pot on a lower shelf she felt the tingle on the bottom of her feet. She heard a buzzing sound as the tingle became stronger. A native of California, she froze still for a second before turning and lifting her youngest daughter out of her highchair. The first shock rolled under her as she lurched to stand braced inside the kitchen door, clutching her daughter tightly. Holding her voice to slightly below that of a scream she called,
"Kristine! Stand in the doorway! Now!" as the second roll rumbled under her feet. Shaking and rolling, she braced herself and her daughter as her small home swayed under the assault of the earthquake. Relief flooded through her as she saw her oldest daughter appear in the doorway at the other end of the room. The shaking grew worse.
"Hold on to the sides of the door, Kris! Itís an earthquake! Stay right there! Donít move!
The shocks were coming more rapid now...and seemed stronger. The wood frame house was creaking, swaying and rocking. From the corner of her eye she caught the movement of her teak bookcase tilting out away from the dinning room wall. Itís going to fall! She thought as she threw out her free arm to push it back against the wall while holding her three year old in her other arm. Books from the brick & board bookcase fell and scattered to the floor. Noise of pots and pans shaking & falling came from behind her in the kitchen. A cupboard door popped open and its contents scattered and rolled across the floor. She saw a picture fall from the wall.
Using her legs she fought to maintain her balance in the doorway as the quake was now shaking her home with a measured frequency rumbling through the bedrock below her foundation. Again and again, she pushed back the tall bookcase, which was trying hard to fall over.
As a girl reared in California she had experienced a number of quakes. All had been not much longer than a minutes duration, so as this shaking continued with its shockwaves rolling beneath her feet, during the second and then third minute she became more frightened as she continued to catch and push back her bookcase each time it tried to fall over. Both her daughters were silent as she looked across the room at Kris and said,
"Hang on Kris! It wonít last much longer."
It canít last much longer - when is it going to stop? Push! Donít let it fall! Dear God, protect the three of us, Oí Lord! Itís still going! Is it ever going to stop?
She watched her daughter Kris holding tightly to the door jam and smiled at her. Three months short of her sixth birthday, Kristine was acting like a mature young girl, staying put in the doorway, as she experienced her first earthquake.
Oí God! Please! Make it stop, Oí Lord. Itís not quitting! Itís gone on for minutes and minutes! Is this the time of the end? She was starting to feel panicked as the rolling and shakes continued unabated. She had lost count of all the times she had saved the bookcase from falling over. Time was standing still!
Then, almost at once, it was over with! No shaking, no rolling, no rumble from below. Quiet!
She called Kris over to her. Still holding her youngest, and with her other arm around her older daughter, she thought Thank you dear Lord for keeping us safe!
RUMBLE - SHAKE - Oí God! No! Not again! She thought as the house creaked and the hardwood floor beneath her rolled and shook. Holding her two daughters tightly she tried to brace all three of them in the doorway. Suddenly, it was over. Again - quiet.
Dear Lord! Please make it stop! She prayed.
Holding her breath she waited almost a minute and then, speaking to her two daughters said,
"Maybe thatís the last one now. I hope so! Girls, you have just been through a big earthquake! Even Ďmommyí hasnít been in a bigger one than this one. Letís thank God for our safety."
"Kris! Say this with me, now. ĎThank you God for keeping us safe.í Repeat that with me. You say it too, Cindy. Now, both together. ĎThank you God for keeping us safe.í" Kristine and Cindy, their eyes big, repeated it with their mother.
This eyewitness account, from my wife, was her experience in the terrifying earthquake, which shook the Kodiak area shortly after 5:30 p.m. on March 27th, 1964. It was the greatest ever recorded, in North America.
On this day, as a pilot working for Kodiak Airways, I was in the air during the quake, flying back towards Kodiak and home. It was my last flight of the day. After I shut down my engines, a member of the ground crew came running up and calling up to my open, side cockpit window yelled,
"You missed a really big earthquake, Bob! It was really strong!"
Looking around, I didnít see any damage to our Hanger or Office Building and hoped the same was true for my home and family. Going quickly into the flight office I noticed that the power was off. But, the phone still worked. I phoned home. My wife answered.
"How are you and the girls, honey?" I asked.
My wife answered, "We are all okay. Itís a mess around here. This was the worse quake Iíve ever been in Bob! It seemed like it would never stop! I held Cindy in the kitchen doorway and Kris stayed braced in the hall doorway. The teak bookcase wanted to tip over. But, I saved it."
"What about the house? Any damage?" I asked.
"I donít see any damage but I really havenít looked." She answered. "Oh! We need bread. Will you pick up some Russian Rye at the Bakery on the way home?" she asked.
I hung up after telling her I had a few minutes of paperwork to do. Then, I would get the bread and would be home soon.
Twenty minutes later, in the bakery, I was paying for my bread when two young boys ran in and yelled out that the boat harbor was flooding and the water was coming up the street! As I backed out of my bakery parking space I looked towards the boat harbor and saw the flooding moving towards me. I drove up the hill to my house, thankful that our little home sat on the side of the hill overlooking the downtown area.
As I pulled into my driveway, my wife was outside waiting for me.
"They want you down at the Airways right now! The water is flooding and you are to fly a plane up to the landing strip by the lake." she said quickly. Giving her the bread and a quick kiss I quickly backed out and headed toward the Airways. Wait a minute! If Itís flooding, I donít want my car down there. Driving only a short distance, I parked my car up on the side of the hill above the Airways. Leaving the key in the car I ran straight down the hill and saw water flooding into the aircraft parking area. My Chief Pilot, Al, was headed, splashing through the water, towards one of the two Grumman Amphibians sitting in the parking area. Seeing me approaching, he called out, "Grab the Widgeon and take it up to the strip, Bob. Iíll meet you up there." As I climbed up into the Grumman Widgeon amphibian the water was just below my knees and rising quickly. Securing the door I settled into the cockpit and quickly started both engines. Al had one of his two engines turning and soon both aircraft were warming up and getting ready to takeoff. I was half afloat as I started to taxi out towards the flooded channel where we made our takeoff and landings. Before I was across the parking area, I was floating. Retracting the landing gear I applied takeoff power and started down the channel. Up ahead were many floating items and debris scattered around. I skidded left and right to try to miss the debris and using my flaps was able to pull my aircraft up into the air after a short takeoff run. I called Al and warned him of the debris he would face on his takeoff run behind me. I was light in weight as my fuel level was low. As I circled over the downtown area I observed several large fishing boats floating and crashing into buildings near the boat harbor. The docks in the boat harbor had broken loose and many of the boats were still tied to their docks with no crew aboard. The water was swirling the boats around and pushing them into the downtown business area. I saw several boats making their way out into the bay, under power. Down below, was another sight I will never forget. Five or six brand new Renault R-8 sedans were floating near their new car lot next to the flooded dealership building. I heard later that they were still floating when the water started to recede and they were sucked out into the bay where they eventually sank.
Low on fuel, I lowered my landing gear, lined up on the gravel runway and soon was parked on the Harvey Flying Service ramp. Al landed behind me and was soon parking next to me. We had saved one Airways Grumman Goose and one Grumman Widgeon. The registration for the two aircraft saved during the first wave was: N28676, G-44 Grumman Widgeon, which I flew and N69263, G-21A Grumman Goose, which Al Cratty flew.
Alís wife picked us up and we drove back and parked next to my car up above the Airways. When we arrived on the side of the hill and looked down, we found the channel almost empty of water. Then slowly the water started to run the other direction - faster and faster. It climbed higher and higher coming up 22 feet above normal. The roar and noise got stronger by the minute.
Here, the three of us stood, looking down at what could only be called, ĎMother Nature, Gone Wild!í
The water flowing through the channel was moving at over 40 miles per hour. Dock piling were being snapped with the sound of gunshots and booming. Debris choked the channel as it hurried out into the bay. Pieces of docks, half sunk buildings, boats, some manned but most, empty of their crew ran past below us. A skiff with two persons on board, their outboard motor running, headed down the channel caught in the current. Its driver was trying hard to miss all the debris and get to safety.
With loud booming and snapping, the Airways dock and main Hanger was pulled away from land and sucked out into the rapid current of water in the channel. Inside our Hanger was another Grumman Goose, in for maintenance. A large supply of hard to find Grumman spare parts were stored upstairs over the machine shop, which was part of our hanger. All this was now swinging out into the channel. The heavy weight of the machine shop pulled the hanger down. A hanger door partially opened and we three saw the Goose, inside, trapped as the hanger sank lower and lower heading out into the bay. In less than three minutes it was gone below the water. The Airways office building was close to our hanger and with the hanger now gone, the water rushed against this building and soon, it too was moving out into the raging waters and slowly sank as it headed out into the bay. The Airways was gone! Total assets left, two aircraft plus twenty some odd employees. Did they still have a job?
"Look!" Alís wife cried. "Isnít that the Donnelly & Acheson Warehouse and part of the fuel dock?" Here it came. Half sunk, moving down the channel and heading out into the bay. Then, we could smell the fuel. Was it diesel or gasoline, or both? The main fuel tanks were up high on the bank, still above the water. Hopefully, the valves had been shut as the pipes running down to the fuel dock had been snapped off. It was later that I found that the operator at the Kodiak Electric plant, during the first part of the earthquake, had pulled the master switch and shut down all power to the city. This helped keep the city safe from fire as, during the tidal wave, power poles and lines were tore down. (The power in Seward was not shut off and half of the city burned down.)
It was almost dark when one of Kodiakís four police cars pulled up. Jerry, one of our Ďcities finestí told us that everyone was being asked to go up to the Kodiak High School. They were expecting aftershocks and no one knew what the water might do next. The school was up on top of the hill. I headed back to my house to pick up my family but found them gone.
It was only later that I found that the tsunami generated by the earthquake struck with destructive force all along the coast of Alaska between the southern tip of Kodiak Island northeastward to Cordova. The communities hardest hit by the seismic waves were Seward, Whittier, Valdez, and Kodiak.
Villages on Kodiak that were completely destroyed were Kaguyak and Old Harbor. 70% of Afognak and half of Ouzinke were destroyed. In Kodiak damage was to the downtown business district, canneries, businesses, and homes along the beach areas of the town.
It was over 30 minutes after the quake when the water started to rise, without an initial withdrawal, and within 15 minutes or so reached 22 feet above normal. The second and third wave followed at about 55 minutes between each. The fourth wave, about an hour and a half after the third wave, was the highest and reached 30 to 35 feet above normal. It was about 11:20 pm when this highest wave hit.
Everyone in town was asked to assemble at the Kodiak High School Complex. These buildings had been built to California Earthquake Code and were considered the safest around. And, aftershocks, some measuring 5 and up to 7 on the Richter scale, which were major quakes in themselves, were occurring about every 50 minutes or so.
Checking back at my home and finding it empty, I caught up with my family at the school. The city residents were picking out places to rest and sleep. Blankets, sleeping bags, were appearing in the hallways. We were asked to try to stay in the hallways, not the classrooms, as it was safer. The cafeteria was opened and food and warm coffee & tea were being handed out.
I talked with one of my fellow pilots whose home had been washed out into the bay. His wife was a piano teacher and she had just lost her grand piano along with her home. The clothes on their backs and their car were all that was left. Everyone was in a degree of shock. No one knew what to expect next! Would these strong aftershocks cause more tidal waves? Everyone would freeze and stop whatever they were doing and just hold on as these aftershocks shook the school and our island. Smiles of relief followed the ending of each aftershock. Our two girls were asleep when the highest and strongest wave hit our town about 11:20 p.m.
My wife and I were with a group listening to a short wave radio tuned to the marine radio frequency. The ACS (Alaska Communication System) operator was attempting to get the status of our local fishing fleet. Later, it was found that 46 boats of the king crab fleet were destroyed and 86 damaged. The Salmon fleet suffered too as several canneries and 55 salmon seiners were destroyed.
It continued to be a very long night. The aftershocks continued to shake our Island every hour or so. We could hear the roaring of the water coursing through the channel and around Near Island. More Kodiak residents kept arriving at the school seeking shelter and warmth. Some hot food and drink helped too!
The lights shining into the dark night from the High School had attracted families who, when the first tidal wave hit town, had rushed up the road towards the top of Pillar Mountain. With the temperature close to freezing those sitting on the side of the mountain were cold and frightened as the ground shook and the water roared below them. Several Auxiliary Power Plants were running and providing electricity at the High School, the ACS building, and the Police Station. The hallways in our school slowly got more crowded as these residents arrived from Pillar Mountain.
Finally, morning arrived. The staff of school employees was able to serve a basic breakfast of eggs and toast and hot drinks. It was evident everyone then eating or standing in line waiting felt a closeness and togetherness that morning. We had survived the night! It was time to greet the new day and see what was left of our town.
Kodiak Airways had lost all of its ground facilities. With just two aircraft left we were almost out of business. The owner and employees met together that morning to discuss our future. Our supply of aircraft fuel was destroyed. The only fuel remaining was what Harvey Flying Service had in their tanks. My log book shows I flew that day for 25 minutes. I note that we were looking for our Cessna 180 floatplane, which had last been seen heading to sea still tied to its floating dock. I had city officials aboard and we did a quick inspection of the damage around town. It was a short trip because of the uncertainty of our fuel supply. Meanwhile, throughout our town, people were returning to their homes, the lucky ones, or looking for anything of value at their former home sites. After my flight I arrived back at my house to find Karin heating and cooking on our two burner Coleman stove. She and the girls had worked hard cleaning up all the items, which had come loose during the quake. We had no power or heat, and no fireplace either. We all were wearing our coats. I inspected around our house and foundation to look for quake damage. Our little home seemed to have survived all the shaking and rolling it had gone through. There were come cracks in the foundation and maybe a few nails were loose somewhere! Overall, the house still seemed tight and secure. We were truly thankful for our blessings during the last 24 hours.
These Men With Broken Hearts
Got to thinking about sad, getting drunk, she done left me, falling off the bar stool country music. The thought took me back to the 60's, a time when social and moral changes were taking place all over the US., but mostly on the West Coast. I was in Alaska during all the 60's and we were behind about 5 years, therefore, good old country music was still king during that period. The Beetles had not become popular in Alaska yet. Lonesome 77203, Harbor Lights, Frauline, and Hank Williams' These Men with Broken Hearts were all popular songs.
It was Good Friday, March 27, 1964. Kodiak was a small 3,000 population village except during fishing season, when the population reached around 12,000. The entire economy was based on salmon fishing, and a new commercial species, King Crab. Fisherman who had 34 foot limit salmon boats were buying 2,000,000 dollar 100 foot boats and paying them off in one King Crab season. The boom was on. Halibut, or long line fishing, always a small enterprise was still on the horizon but would provide another boom in the late 60's. The second largest economical factor in Kodiak was the Naval Air Station; and the third was alcohol.
There were 13 bars in the downtown area, 14 more outside the city limits. Kodiak was a transit community, people coming in and out for business, hunting and fishing, and fun. There were two large hotels, two grocery stores and all the other ancillary businesses that go with a small thriving community. Prostitution and gambling was running rampant. People were there, running from the "South 48" from ex-wives, bills, failed businesses, the law and all the other reasons people run. The bars were the nicest buildings in town, all with beautiful long curving bars, chandeliers, and great food. Bar hours were from 6:00 AM till 5:00 AM. They all served breakfast during the one hour closing to keep customers there. Breakfast was served 24 hours a day and any other type of meal you can imagine from Chinese to Mexican. Even the B&B served breakfast!
I was working as a telephone lineman for Kodiak Telephone Company. There were three of us there. Gordon Jensen, the manager, Phil Anderson, the main climber and me, more or less the gopher. Two women ( one was Irene Lawhead) sent the bills, collected the money and answered the phones. We were located about two blocks from "downtown" which consisted of two North-South streets and three East-West streets. We were all "players" at the time, hard drinkers, hard workers and fun loving. All of us were from somewhere else.
On that day, March 27, 1964 at 5:30 PM the largest earthquake ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere hit Alaska. 8.7 on the Richter scale. I had gotten off work at 5:00 and gone home, collected my son Vance who was 2 1/2 years old and took him down the hill to a playground. We were on the merry-go-round, my new 1964 Volkswagen bus parked nearby. The merry-go-round was old and I was turning it and then jumping up and down on the side, like a horseback ride, up and down, round and round. I thought my eyes were playing tricks when I saw the VW literally jumping up and down off the ground. I could feel nothing on the old merry-go-round but the bus was actually dancing on the ground. I stopped the ride, and took Vance in my arms and started walking towards the bus. The ground was like sea swells. I put my foot forward and it hit the ground about knee level. I was unable to stand.
The shaking lasted for 2 1/2 - 3 minutes, which seemed like an eternity. When it stopped, there was an eerie silence. I picked up Vance and ran to the bus, then drove up the hill to my house at 1550 Hillside drive. There, my wife was standing outside with my daughter Brenda. My wife had gone to college in Hawaii and had some experience with tidal waves there. She kept telling me that there was going to be a tidal wave, that we must go get her Mother, who lived downtown, about one block from the small boat harbor. We drove down there, about a 3 or 4 minute drive, and people were running around everywhere, confused and scared. All the old wooden buildings were still standing, not much damage. Two buildings were demolished, the Fish and Game building and the Coast Guard Loran station, both concrete block buildings. The telephone company building, a 2 story block building was not damaged, as it had been build on soft fill.
As we looked out to the boat harbor, we could see that the water was already rising up over the parking lot. I took as many people as I could in the bus, something like 9 adults and 18 kids. People were just handing us children as we slowly drove down the main street of town. Finally full, I headed up out of town and to Pillar Mountain road. We drove up the mountain until the clutch burned out on the bus. There we sat, all night as the water below would rise slowly, 35-40 feet high, then whoosh, suddenly dropping back with a great sucking sound. We could hear buildings cracking and people yelling. It was a very frightening night.
At daylight, we drove/coasted back down the mountain. Our house, we later found out, was 230 feet above sea level. There was no damage there. I dropped everyone off and got my old Dodge Power Wagon running and went downtown. Downtown was totally gone. Great piles of wood and debris were lying everywhere at the crest of where the water had risen. Cars overturned, fishing boats on dry land several blocks from the boat harbor. Fuel oil covered everything. The telephone building was standing, but gutted. Nothing remained inside. The switching equipment which had been contained in a large metal building to the rear of the office was still there, standing out in the open. The metal building was completely gone. Channel iron frames that held the switches were covered with silt and mud. On the top of the 3 inch wide frames, in the silt sat unbroken eggs washed up from the grocery stores. My wife's Mothers house was gone.
There we were. The only communication out of Kodiak was through fishing boat radios, relayed down the Aleutian Chain to an undamaged Coast Guard Station. The world that cared about us thought for two days, that the Island had sunk with no survivors. The Island did in fact sink 5 1/2 feet, wiping out coast line that had existed for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.
We got Stromberg-Carlson to ship via air, a 100 line emergency package telephone switch board. For two weeks, we ran field wire around town and hooked up phones, ten party lines to each switch giving us 1,000 phones in about 10 days. The Coast Guard and Navy did their part and we soon had outside communications to the South 48 on two phones. I was lucky, and got to call home about 7 days after the earthquake. My Mother thought I was dead. As an aside to this, an oil company was drilling an oil well on some land my Mother owned in Matagorda County, Texas at this time. On Friday, March 27, the well caved in. The oil company attributed it to the earthquake and one city on the coast of California (Crescent City) flooded because of the tidal wave.
The press covered the Island. Life, Time, Newsweek....all were there. The regular citizens of Kodiak had a great time playing head games with them. One girl in particular that I remember was about 25 years old. She had recently lost her right hand in a cannery accident. Life took a picture of her sitting on a piling near the boat harbor, looking sadly to sea. The caption said "One fisherman's wife who has not heard from her husband"...It was a great picture. She was not married, and her boyfriend was in jail at McNeal Island for beating her up. The town got a great laugh out of that.
As it happened, the City of Kodiak had contracted with a large outside construction firm to build a road shortly before the earthquake. Just days before the earthquake, several barges had arrived carrying all the heavy equipment to build the road. So, after the initial phone lines were ran and the phones hooked up, I was laid off from the phone company. It was easy to get another job. S.S. Mullens, the road contractor had been hired by the State to clean up the debris. I started as a heavy equipment oiler, really a laborer, and made more money than I had ever made in my life. We worked 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week, liberal overtime and double time. After about 3 months, the job was done.
The first buildings rebuilt downtown were the bars. It was a race to see who could rebuild and open for business first. Temporary plywood shacks went up almost immediately. The Ships Tavern was first to open its doors, 7 days after the earthquake followed by Solly's Office. Tony's, the Town and Country, The Mecca 49 Room soon followed. Within 21 days, 13 downtown bars were operating. It was an uncommonly warm spring, and they all left their front doors open and the music floated out into the muddy dirt street. As you walked down through town, the getting drunk, falling off the barstool country music floated out into the night from each place. The Ships even had a live band playing Pop-a-Top-Again. It was an exciting time, a community drawn together by a natural disaster. Nobody kept normal hours, and you may find the largest crowd in Tony's at 3:30 AM, or The Mecca at 8:30 AM. My Mother-in-laws house was found 21 days after the tidal wave, 220 miles out at sea. It was floating, and the upstairs was dry. The entire contents were recovered.
And as I walked down the street, lonely and 4,500 miles from home, the Country Music kept playing, out into the night. Lonesome 77203, Harbor Lights and...These Men with Broken Hearts.
This page created 1999 May 5, relocated 2004 March 14, updated 2010 February 18.