Slideshow: Julia O'Malley: A family earthquake story, passed down like an heirloom

The JC Penney building was heavily damaged in the March 1964 earthquake in Anchorage.
The JC Penney building was heavily damaged in the March 1964 earthquake in Anchorage.
Joe Rychenik
Julia O'Malley

In my family, stories about the 1964 earthquake always begin with the way it sounded. Like an army of graders coming down the street, Mom says. Like a Boeing 737 landing in the yard, says Aunt Barbara.

"You know how a bass drum vibrates in your chest?" Uncle Tommy, who was in Turnagain during the quake, said recently. "Like that. Except your whole body."

The sound lasted just long enough for the brain to register it and try to pinpoint where it was coming from. And then the ground began to roll. Like the earth was a giant blanket, Mom said, and somebody was shaking it out.

Earthquake stories around Anchorage are a little like a family wedding ring, passed down through a few generations now, the edges worn smooth by time. When you grow up hearing them, a certain kind of awareness settles into your DNA. This is why, once in a while, I'll hear a sustained rumble, a far away airplane or snowplow, and I'll go on alert. Is that The Sound? Is It happening? That's in the background of the family stories, too, the idea that we're never safe, that another one could come at any time.

Read more: 'Julia O'Malley: A family earthquake story, passed down like an heirloom'