First in a series about the 1964 Alaska earthquake
When the ground stopped moving, 8-year-old Penny Mead and her little brother, Paul, were sitting on the hood of an old light green Plymouth station wagon out on the Cook Inlet mud flats. The earthquake had been so loud. Now it was quiet. Not far away, water lapped the shore.
When they had climbed on that car, minutes earlier, it was parked outside their house on Chilligan Drive in Anchorage's Turnagain neighborhood. Now it was lodged in a bizarre new landscape next to the ruins of their garage. Broken chunks of snowy ground, rafts of mud, and upended trees stretched all around them. Behind them, across 150 feet of debris, a newly formed cliff rose three stories. Near the top of it, torn pipes stuck out of the earth, dripping. Sandy soil trickled down the bluff.
There had been four Mead children in the house when it started -- Penny and her three brothers, Perry, 12, Paul, 4, and Merrell, 2. There had been a yard. There had been a driveway. Now there were just two of them. The house was crushed. The driveway was gone. Paul was crying. He had no shoes.
Penny heard a voice, and saw Tay Thomas, a neighbor, across the mess. Thomas and her two kids were climbing a tree, trying to get to the top of the bluff. Penny slid off the station wagon and coaxed Paul to follow her back toward the cliff.
You can still find Chilligan Drive on the western edge of the Turnagain neighborhood, but it doesn't look the way it did before the Great Alaska Earthquake.
In the spring of 1964, Chilligan was a curved street that headed north off Clay Products Drive and then turned east, running parallel to the shore of Cook Inlet. The Mead house sat off the curve on a bluff above the water with views Mount Susitna, Fire Island, and on clear days, Mount McKinley.
Now Chilligan dead-ends at a steep drop. The curve and part of the street that paralleled the inlet were shorn off by a massive landslide during the earthquake. Part of the street was rebuilt and given the name Kissee Court.
Much of the Turnagain neighborhood sits on a layer of sandy clay that can turn to liquid in strong shaking. It is still classified among the places in Anchorage with the highest risk of ground failure during a quake. Seventy-five houses in the neighborhood were destroyed as the land under them collapsed in 1964. In aerial photos taken afterward, a huge crater bites into the land there and extends out into the inlet. The slide zone was estimated to cover 130 acres.
The 1964 earthquake was the second largest ever recorded. It registered 9.2 and lasted as long as five minutes. The death toll is still subject to dispute. The latest number is 139. Nine people died in Anchorage. Four of those deaths occurred in Turnagain. Two of those were on Chilligan Drive.
The Mead family earthquake story begins like a lot of Anchorage earthquake stories. It was dinnertime on Good Friday. At 5:36 p.m. four Mead children sat around a table, eating. The oldest daughter, Pam, who was 11, was at a friend's house a block away. On the TV: "Fireball XL5," a children's sci-fi puppet program.
Maybe 15 minutes before, their mother, Wanda Mead, left for a quick errand. Wanda is 84 years old now. She has since remarried and goes by Wanda Wright. I reached her last week at her home in Maine. The family had planned to go to Independence Mine at Hatcher Pass that day, she told me. The car was packed for the trip, but her husband, Perry, who was a neurosurgeon, left that morning to make rounds at the hospital and was delayed all day. He still wasn't home when she left the house.
It has been 50 years, but I could hear in Wanda's voice the anguished desire to rewind that day. She wished they would have driven the car out of town. Then the house would have been empty. And everything might have been different.
"(Independence Mine) was one of those wonderful places like the Homer Spit where you could take your kids and turn 'em loose," she told me. "And nothing bad would happen."
Her errand took her to Bert's Drug Store on Fourth Avenue between G Street and H Street, she said. She had special-ordered Easter presents for her boys. They were cars that went on rails. She got to the store and parked. She remembers that she walked in and picked up the cars. She remembers that she paid.
"I was on my way out of the store when it hit," she said.
She huddled behind a counter as the store rocked. A block or two away, a fissure split the street. Entire buildings dropped 10 feet. Nearby, on Fifth Avenue, the side of the JC Penney store collapsed, killing two people. Wanda doesn't remember any of that destruction. All she remembers is that when the quake stopped, she got in her car and wound through the streets until she found a way out of downtown. Then she headed west, toward Turnagain.
"I had to be home. That was the only thing in my mind: I need to be home. I need to be home," she said.
First, the children felt house began to rattle. The rattling grew violent. Penny, the 8-year-old, lives in Fairbanks now. Most people know her as "Mossy," a nickname she's had since college.
She sent me a written account of what happened next a few weeks ago. She didn't talk about the earthquake for 20 years, she said. Then it came up in therapy. And then she started to bring it up with family and friends. Even now it's easiest for her to write about it.
Penny ran outside the house when it was clear the earthquake wasn't going to stop, she wrote. As she watched, cracks snaked through the hard-packed snow. She tried to avoid them and took refuge near an old car parked near the driveway. Her ears filled with noise.
"There are loud rumbling, groaning and screeching sounds," Mead wrote. "I say over and over to myself, 'Stay calm! Stay Calm!' "
The shaking slowed, but then something deep beneath the ground gave way. The driveway, the house, the car, all of it, lurched, sinking toward the inlet. Mead's brain tried to keep up with what her eyes were taking in, she wrote. The only explanation that made sense in her child's mind was that the world was coming to an end.
"God help us!" she remembers yelling.
The house was breaking up and her brothers were still inside.
The Meads shared a driveway with the neighbors, Tay and Lowell Thomas Jr., who had two children, Anne, 8, and David, who was 6.
Tay is now 86. She was home with the children that late afternoon, she told me recently when I visited her in Anchorage. She said she heard a noise she thought was guns coming from Fort Richardson. Soon she realized it was an earthquake. She gathered Ann and David and hurried out the door.
"We got about 10 feet beyond the steps into the snow," she said. "A very, very strong shake of the ground knocked us all off our feet."
She turned back toward her house, looking for the family dog.
"At that moment, there was a big crack (sound)," she said.
Her house split in two. Part of it began moving down the bluff toward the inlet. They were moving, too. She grabbed her children and held one under each arm.
"We just lay on this piece of frozen ground and started floating down," she said.
Next door, the Mead yard was breaking up like pieces of a puzzle. Penny stood next to the car. Perry herded his two younger brothers down a short flight of stairs, out the door, into the driveway.
"I remember (Perry) giving me a shove and that's really the last I remember of him," Paul, who was 4 at the time, told me when I reached him at home in Colorado.
Penny saw Perry come out of the house, she wrote. He towed a little brother in each hand.
"When he sees the devastation from the earthquake and how the property is dropping downward towards the sea, he panics," she wrote.
Perry let go. He ran away from the house as if he were trying to escape to Chilligan Drive, but a cliff was rising at the end of the driveway.
"The huge cracks splitting open everywhere snatch him from my sight in a split second," she wrote.
Mossy said she felt calm then; it's a feeling she still gets in emergencies. The two little boys, Paul and Merrell, stood by the house, crying. The ground was still moving. She stayed by the car and called to them.
Time slowed down for Tay Thomas as she and her children rode down with the landslide.
"I remember seeing the children's swing move by us on a piece of frozen ground," she said. "I thought, that's odd, because that was in the backyard, but it was ahead of us now."
She heard the shattering of glass. They passed her greenhouse.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I couldn't believe what I was experiencing," she said.
Then she noticed that the water lay ahead. They were still moving down.
"I wondered," she said, "if we were going in."
The little Mead boys, Paul and Merrell, worked across the driveway to their sister. Soon they were right next to her, standing on a chunk of earth.
Penny lifted Paul onto the car. He scrambled up. Safe. She turned around to lift Merrell.
"In that split second," she told me. "Merrell was just gone."
"A crevasse opened up and took him, sand peeling from its sides," she wrote. Then it closed up again, swallowing him "like an earthen monster."
She doesn't remember climbing up on top of the car with Paul or if she understood they were moving down toward the water with the wreckage of their house. Paul didn't see his brothers go into the cracks, he told me. He just remembers the trees whipping back and forth.
"I was just focused on what was in front me," he said. "What used to be a solid world had just suddenly fallen to pieces."
Next door, Tay Thomas became sure that she and the children were going to die, she told me.
"I remembered hearing somewhere or other that God would be with us at the end of the world. I looked up in the sky and I didn't see anything," she said. "Just clouds."
And then a feeling of peace came over her, she told me.
"I just accepted what was happening at that moment," she said.
And then the shaking stopped.
"What I've never forgotten is the shatteringly loud silence when the earthquake finally stopped," Tay's daughter, Anne, wrote in an email. "It had been so incredibly loud."
Tay Thomas noticed what she recognized as a piece of the Mead house. It had slid closer to the water than she had. Later that night, when the tide came up, the house would be totally submerged.
Thomas saw the car that used to sit near the Mead's driveway. Two children sat on the hood.
Wanda made it back to Turnagain no more than 50 minutes after she left the neighborhood to go downtown, she told me. She took a right on Chilligan and drove to where the road used to turn along the bluff.
"It was gone. The trees were gone. The houses were gone. Thomas' house. Our house. It was gone," she said.
She looked down from the top of the cliff where her house used to be and saw Thomas below.
"I yelled at her and asked if she'd seen any of my kids and she said yes, on the car," she said.
Then she saw her two children near the station wagon. Penny was gripping Paul.
What happened after that gets tangled up, refracted through all the emotion of the moment and the years that have passed. A neighbor made his way out to the kids. They were carried back up to the top of the cliff.
Wanda asked her daughter what happened. Penny said that her older brother "jumped in a hole" and her younger brother was swallowed up.
"She said, 'Mama, I tried, I tried to get Merrell,' " Wanda recalled. "It just broke my heart. Because I knew she would live with that until she died."
Paul remembers his mother holding him and taking him to the home of a neighbor. Penny remembers her father, Perry Mead, getting home around the time her mother did.
"My dad asked me, 'Where is Perry and Merrell?' I told him they were gone. ... He just kind of freaked and grabbed a shovel and ran down there."
Wanda went down to the debris pile with a neighbor, she said. The house was crushed, its parts strewn over a distance. There was no sign of the boys. She doesn't remember her husband going down. Soon they were told that a tsunami was headed for the city and they all had to move to higher ground.
The tsunami never arrived, but the tide came up and covered what was left of the Mead house. The family spent the night with a friend of a friend out of the neighborhood.
Over the days that followed, volunteer searchers went through the muddy wreckage. They found the Mead's kitchen table and hauled out a convertible that had been in the garage. There was no sign of the boys' remains.
"I guess because I was so small people assumed I wouldn't have known anything but I knew a lot," Penny said. "I always wondered if someone had approached me, you know in an appropriate manner because I was just small, they might have been able to search and find the bodies."
It might have given everyone more closure, she said.
A memorial service for Merrell and Perry was held at First Presbyterian Church. Mourners packed the service. A singer sang Psalm 131. Penny and her brother were kept home.
"I did not introduce the subject (of the boys' deaths)" Wright said. "If the subject came up, I tried very hard to be straight and honest and not overload them with information."
Penny "Mossy" Mead remembers that her parents stayed mostly quiet about what happened. There were immediate needs to tend to. They had to find a temporary place to live, and later they built a new house in South Anchorage.
"I think that's partly that generation to a degree," Mossy said. "It seems like a lot of people in that era, you didn't talk about things."
The Meads divorced several years after the earthquake.
Shortly after the quake, a story emerged, published in news reports. It said Perry died after he ran back into the house to rescue Merrell. No one in the Mead family spoke directly to a reporter.
"Maybe because he died, they needed to do something to bring condolences to the family for his loss, and making him the hero probably made it easier to bear," Mossy said.
Wright donated their lot to the city to become parkland. Her only stipulation was that the ground remain undisturbed. It's now at the eastern edge of Earthquake Park. The Thomas lot next door was redeveloped. Many lots that slid in the quake have been rebuilt with expensive new homes, their yards rolling downhill to border the Coastal Trail. Building codes have changed. Houses may still end up sliding, but they are supposed to be designed not to break apart.
Mossy's sister Pam was killed in a car accident in Homer in 1981. Her father, Perry, died of cancer in 1995. Both of their ashes are spread on the mud flats. The ruins of the house, visible for years, were slowly buried in silt until they disappeared. In the 1980s, Mossy had a memorial stone for her siblings placed at a cemetery in Wasilla. But to her, Earthquake Park will always feel like her family's real burial site, she said. When she wants to remember all the people she has lost, she walks out along the Coastal Trail to mile marker 1.5 and looks at the water and the trees.