Fourth in a series
SEWARD -- The old library basement was a dim, musty room, used occasionally for meetings and movie nights. It was an unremarkable space except for what hung on the walls -- children's drawings, dozens of them, in Crayola-bright colors with stick-figure people and blob-like cars, all showing the same basic scene: billowing fire and black skies, enormous waves, buildings sinking, people fleeing on foot or in cars.
They are a collection of more than 80 drawings made by Seward children in 1964, just after the 9.2 Good Friday earthquake ripped though their town and triggered a lethal tsunami, rupturing fuel tanks and starting a series of explosions and fires that lasted for days.
Some of the scenes are drawn in crayons and pastels, others in ink or pencil. Most show fuel tanks -- often with Texaco and Standard Oil symbols neatly drawn -- engulfed in an inferno of fire, with enormous plumes of black smoke filling the sky. In some, boats in the bay are on fire, or blue waves threaten the town. One boy imagined Nazi fighter planes dropping bombs on the exploding fuel tanks. A seventh grader drew two adults and a child clinging to each other, surveying a black and broken landscape.
No one knows for certain why they were made. It seems that someone must have coordinated different classes of children, grades one through eight, for the project, and preserved the drawings as a collection. But for about 30 years, no one knew they existed.
"I do know that I have always thought they were unique and real treasures," said Maureen Callahan, who was a senior library assistant when the drawings came to light.
SEWARD ON FIRE
The drawings were discovered in the early 1990s, when the library hired a temporary employee to straighten out the archives, a locked room in the basement the staff called "the dungeon."
"He came up from the dungeon one day, his arms full of pictures, exclaiming over his find," said Callahan in an email. "Our small staff was amazed; none of us had known they were down there."
Each drawing was labeled with the child's name, teacher and grade. Callahan said they were all dated the same day, about a week after the March 27, 1964 earthquake.
There's a story in Seward, widely repeated, that the schools were opened soon after the earthquake to keep people from fleeing town. The docks, waterfront and railroad tracks had all been destroyed and submerged in the Bay, and with them went most of the town's economy.
"Here you have no docks, no industry no nothing, no way to go back to the transportation (industry)," said Willard Dunham, who was a young father at the time of the quake and worked for the Department of Labor. "We could see our families disappearing."
"People were just packing up their families and leaving... someone, I don't know who, thought it would probably be a good idea to open the schools because maybe people would stay," said Sue McClure, who was 14 at the time.
If school hadn't been called back into session, her family might have been among those that left, she said. In McClure's drawing, flowerpots and dishes fall from the shelves of her home. In the distance, smoke and fire roar out of the tanks that would have been visible from her window. A sheen of fuel on the water had ignited, and the bay itself was on fire as her family fled Seward for a house just outside of town.
Throughout the first night she tried to comfort her little brother as they stayed up and listened to the radio broadcasts.
"The reports were that Seward was burning to the ground," McClure said. "From our perspective -- all we could see was red in the sky. So we totally believed."
When her family drove back in to Seward after a couple days it was "just total devastation."
Twelve people had been killed in the tsunami. Boats were washed up on end and buildings and railroad tracks were slumped and broken in the bay. The rail road fuel tank cars had caught fire and were still smoldering and the mountains were blackened from smoke.
Their house was OK, a mess but still habitable. In the days that followed, there were frequent aftershocks and so many tsunami alarms McClure's family began ignoring them. School started up again and her father -- who'd lost his job as a crane operator at the docks -- found work, along with many others in town, repairing roads and infrastructure. That tided them over for a while, she said, and they ended up staying. Fifty years later her mother, now a widow, still lives in same house.
'THINGS WERE HAPPENING WEIRD'
To this day McClure doesn't remember driving past the burning bay. "Maybe I blanked it or blocked it," she said. What McClure remembers is going back to class. When it came to the drawings, "I vaguely remember being a little ticked off that we had to do something that stupid, but that was just because art wasn't my thing," she said.
McClure graduated from high school in Seward and taught chemistry at a high school in Fairbanks and at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. In 1994 she was staying near the epicenter of the magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake in California, which killed about 60 people, collapsed freeways and caused billions in damage. The morning the quake woke her up, she went outside and saw people running and screaming in the streets. "I thought, 'This is nothing,'" she said. She paused, and added that if she hadn't lived through the Good Friday earthquake "it probably would have been something.'"
Rocky Morgan was 8 years old at the time of the quake. When the shaking stopped, his family fled to the hospital. "We could look out and see the bay, and the (tsunami) wave was coming. We could see that things were happening weird," Morgan said.
Morgan was an adventurous boy, he remembers going out in stormy weather and playing "Eskimo hunt" when the wind was blowing hard. His earthquake drawing was one of the more abstract ones, with bright fields of color energetically scribbled out of the edges of the page. Red for the fire, blue for the water in the bay. "Everything was on fire... that was after the first big wave," Morgan said.
Morgan grew up and became a hunting guide, starting out as a packer for a hunting trip in the Alaska Range when he was just 14. Now disabled and retired, his living room walls are covered in mounted trophies from trips around Alaska and Russia. He still remembers the earthquake as an exciting time.
"It was so much fun for me, getting to run around town and look at the soldiers, and it was an adventure going for meals (at the armory)," he said. "I was able to just kind of run wild."
Morgan doesn't remember drawing the earthquake picture, or who asked him to make it. Like many people, he guesses it might have been some adult's attempt to help the town's children work through their emotions. "There were a lot of kids scared after that," Morgan said.
PIECES OF HISTORY IN THE DARK
"The earthquake was traumatic and it affected a lot of children... They probably used it as an exercise to more or less ease their traumatic feelings about it," said Florita Richardson. She was teaching second grade at the time, but doesn't remember the drawings being made either. When she was told to start teaching again, she said, she remembers her class picking up where they'd left off, trying to get to back to normal as quickly as possible.
Lee Polesky, who moved to Seward to teach high school just months after the quake and knows much of the town's history, said he thought the city's librarian, Margaret "Jackie" Deck, must have asked the children to draw them as a way of making a pictorial history of the quake. "She was really interested in the history of the town," Polesky said. "There's no doubt she was the one that kept them.
"Luckily in a way she had them stored away in the dark," he said. When they finally were discovered the drawings were still in excellent condition, their colors still as vivid as if they'd just been made.
A couple years after the drawings were rediscovered, Patricia Linville, the current director of the Library Museum, said the library decided to display the pieces in the basement, where a movie about the earthquake would show during the summer tourism season. The pictures were glued to foam core and labeled. When Seward residents saw the pictures for the first time, a few of them took their childhood drawing with them when they left. The rest hung in the basement for about 10 years.
Seward has a new library now, an airy space with big windows looking out over Resurrection Bay. Collections coordinator Katelyn Rullman took the earthquake drawings to the Anchorage Museum recently to make digital scans. The originals went back to Seward and are now kept in large archival boxes wrapped in acid-free paper and stored in a climate-controlled room. She said they'll hang prints of the drawings in the windows of the museum through the summer to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the earthquake. Seward is different town now. It took decades to recover, and the community eventually transformed from a transportation hub to a picturesque tourism destination.
"It definitely changed things," Morgan said. "It just changed forever. It was never the same again."
Thursday: Is Alaska ready for another 9.2 earthquake? Are you? Officials plan to test the state's response to a major disaster starting Thursday.
Reach Victoria Barber at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4556.
By VICTORIA BARBER