‘I just want to cry’: Anchorage-area teachers pick up the pieces after the earthquake

On the second floor of Eagle River’s Gruening Middle School last Friday, the sound of the ground shaking filled a science classroom. It was kind of a “Chrrrrr. Chrrrrr.” Almost like the sound of a jet engine or rocks slamming around in a box. But it didn’t come from an actual earthquake — at least not yet.

The sound came from laptops. The teacher, Bryce Purcella, asked his students to turn down their speakers. They were working on a virtual lab about seismograph stations — complete with earthquake sound effects — and talking about seismic waves.

Moments later, the classroom jerked and swayed. Purcella and his students ducked under tables. The lights went out. No, this wasn’t part of the lesson plan. The magnitude 7.0 earthquake had struck. When the shaking stopped, the group evacuated from the building.

“It was kind of funny, we went out into the parking lot and some of my kids were like, ‘Yeah, Mr. Purcella, I was wondering how you made the room shake,’ ” Purcella recounted Thursday in his classroom.

Hundreds of Anchorage teachers, including those in hard-hit Eagle River, were back in schools Thursday to clean up some of the mess that last Friday’s earthquake left behind. Many were piecing classrooms back together, preparing for students to return to class Monday. Teachers at Gruening Middle School and Eagle River Elementary School were packing for a midyear move to other schools, deciding what to take and what to leave behind during an at-times emotional day.

“It is what it is,” Purcella said. He packed up boxes of science books, but opted to leave a bundle of yardsticks.

Gruening and Eagle River Elementary are located less than 2 miles from each other in Eagle River. District officials have said that earthquake damage touched all of its dozens of school buildings. The damage, however, was so serious at Gruening and Eagle River Elementary that the schools won’t reopen this school year.


All other Anchorage school buildings are expected to reopen to students Monday.

[Some Mat-Su students will get a two-week break after earthquake]

Eagle River Elementary students and staff will split between two schools for the rest of the year: Birchwood ABC Elementary in Chugiak and Homestead Elementary in Eagle River. Preschool will move to Ravenwood Elementary School in Eagle River. Gruening students and staff will move to Chugiak High School.

Down the hall from Purcella on Thursday afternoon, teacher Marnie Hartill had started to gather her students’ binders and textbooks, and the posters off the walls. Across the school district, students left behind school supplies, cellphones, car keys, wallets and more as they evacuated.

Hartill recounted the earthquake as she organized. She spoke of the shaking and the darkness.

“The hardest thing was when the lights went out. And I felt like: Am I dead? When the lights go out you’re not sure. I’ve been in a car wreck before and when you just kind of black out, that’s what it felt like,” she said. “The lights went out and you just kind of wonder: Is this it? It seems so silly that we’re afraid of the dark but when it’s shaking so bad. ...”

Her students filed outside and shared a blanket in the morning chill. When she started talking about her students returning to class, she cried. She can’t wait to see them, she said.

“We’re all going to have PTSD,” she said.

She added: “I miss them a lot.”

There were tears at Eagle River Elementary on Thursday, too. The physical destruction to the school was clear. Metal dangled from the ceiling. Piles of classroom material scattered around floors, from big plastic bins to multicolored crayons. Red paint was splattered across the floor of an art classroom.

Art teacher Sandra Hernandez said she needed just one word to describe Thursday: “Surreal.”

“I just want to cry,” she said.

Hernandez was moving her classroom supplies to two carts. She had rotated between two schools before the earthquake. Now, with Eagle River Elementary splitting between two schools, she’ll move between three.

“I can’t take it all because I’m going to a place with no space,” she said.

She sorted art supplies into two groups, one for each school. But some items she couldn’t take, at least for now, such as nutcrackers that students had made. The nutcrackers were hung up in a section of the school that was deemed off-limits.

Southcentral Alaska wasn’t done shaking Thursday. Aftershocks continue to rattle Anchorage and Mat-Su. By late Thursday afternoon, there had been more than 2,800 aftershocks recorded.

Teachers on Thursday talked about how thankful they were that no one at the schools was seriously injured in last Friday’s quake. Catherine Esary, school district spokeswoman, said two people in the school district reported minor injuries.


Anchorage teachers also said Thursday that they wanted students’ return to school to feel as normal as possible.

At Eagle River Elementary, Rachel Williamson, a long-term substitute, special education teaching assistant, and Heather Waite, a long-term substitute, special education teacher, took down a bulletin board display Thursday. They carefully removed staples from decorations, hoping to hang them up again at their new school.

“It’s going to be a big change," Waite said.

Williamson has two children enrolled at Eagle River Elementary, too. On Monday, one will go to Birchwood ABC and the other to Homestead.

“They’re nervous, but kind of excited too,” she said.

Meanwhile, teachers were also dealing with earthquake damage at their own homes. When asked how their homes fared in the quake, some spoke of broken appliances, water leaks, shattered plates, destroyed electronics and more. Williamson said her hot water just returned the night before, and she still needed to replace two toilets and a stove.

Crews have worked to repair Anchorage schools for days, Esary said.

“Crews have been working almost nonstop since 8:29 last Friday and will continue to do so until the work is done. And, the work will likely continue for quite a long time,” Esary said in an email Thursday. “When schools open on Monday, just as in more normal times, things will continue to pop up that need repairing, replacing, and recovering.”


By Thursday evening, the district had labeled 74 of its schools and buildings green, meaning they were safe and staff can re-enter. There were 33 labeled yellow, meaning they were damaged and repairs or cleanup were ongoing.

There were three red schools, meaning they were seriously damaged and unsafe: Gruening, Eagle River Elementary and Alaska Middle College School.

The Alaska Middle College School is located at the University of Alaska Anchorage Chugiak-Eagle River Campus. Classes have continued at other locations since the quake, district officials said.

Gruening students are expected to start classes Tuesday, while all other Anchorage public school students will resume classes Monday.

Gruening Principal Bobby Jefts said he anticipated spending Tuesday introducing students to their new school.

“It’s almost like the first day of school all over again,” he said.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.