In ‘This Is Chance!’ 3 days that shook Anchorage, and the woman who helped hold it together

This Is Chance! The Shaking of an All-American City, A Voice That Held it Together

By Jon Mooallem. Random House. 336 pages, 2020. $28

In March, 1964, Anchorage was a young city in an even younger state, reaching toward the future both boldly and tentatively. Genie Chance was a part-time radio reporter struggling to establish herself in a male-dominated field. And Frank Brink was a community theater director preparing to stage a performance of “Our Town” in a city on the very edge of the world.

Then the Good Friday Earthquake occurred, and everything changed.

We learn this in the opening pages of “This Is Chance!,” journalist Jon Mooallem’s new account of three days that shook Alaska’s largest city. It’s the story of how ordinary people come together and rise to meet the unexpected in ways they didn’t think possible, ways they didn’t even ponder while improvising them on the spot.

Central to the story is Genie Chance. A young mother of three in a slowly disintegrating marriage, she helped support her family through her work at radio station KENI. She was driving her son to the bookstore on March 27, 1964, when the earthquake hit. Like most residents, she wasn’t sure initially what was occurring, but it rapidly became clear as she looked out her windshield. And when the shaking stopped, she sprang to action, doing a reporter does, seeking out the story.

Chance soon found herself in Anchorage’s Public Safety Building, which became the hub of rescue and recovery efforts. Thanks to generators, KENI was quickly back on the air, and Chance began reporting live on what was being learned by officials and volunteers who swarmed in to help. She would hardly leave her post until late the following Sunday evening, having been a calm voice of updates and reassurance for residents of her shattered city.

Mooallem’s telling of this story is done with an unusual literary approach drawn from the play that had been set to open that Good Friday. Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” presents an ordinary community in turn-of-the-twentieth-century America. The main character is the stage manager, who speaks directly to the audience and also to the performers. As characters enter and exit the stage, the manager fills the audience in on their backstories, as well as what fates await them in later years.

Mooallem openly cribs this idea, and it works masterfully. The dramatic action in this story takes place over those three fraught days when the city emerged from the rubble of what was then the most powerful earthquake ever recorded. As the major players in the events arrive on the scene, we learn who they were, what experiences they brought with them, and with a tip of the hat to Wilder, what befell them afterward. How and when they died. Most writers include this in an epilogue, but here Mooallem weaves these details into the primary narrative itself. The effect is to make the quake the fulcrum on which their lives, and the life of the city itself, turned.

The magnitude 9.2 tremor lasted four minutes and thirty-eight seconds, demolishing buildings throughout the city and sending the upscale subdivision of Turnagain plunging down a newly created cliff. Many of the city’s newest buildings, ones that represented Anchorage’s bold leap into the modern world, were damaged beyond repair.

Residents of Anchorage shifted gears immediately. People driving home from work or heading into town for an evening’s entertainment, or like Chance, running a quick errand, were five minutes later digging others from under the rubble, or directing traffic on fractured streets, or quickly checking on neighbors and family members.

What they weren’t doing was looting or taking advantage of the situation. This is important to Mooallem, who tells of the arrival within hours of sociologists working under a federal grant to study the responses of humans during an ongoing disaster. Their field research, undertaken at the peak of the Cold War, was intended to discern how people responded to a cataclysm, and Mooallem tells us their findings helped change understandings of human nature.

In 1964, there was widespread cynicism among those who thought about such things that people would come together in catastrophe. It was presumed that panic, pandemonium and lawlessness would be the default responses to a massive calamity. History, of course, suggests otherwise, but it was a lesson that experts needed to learn in real time. And that’s what the investigators in Anchorage found on the ground. Virtually everyone pitched in for the common good.

Genie Chance in many ways epitomizes this finding. As the residents of the city she had moved to only a few years previously grappled with how the very ground betrayed them, she placed all else aside and broadcast every detail that arrived in the Public Safety Building. A tidal wave of damage reports flooded the chaotic but remarkably effective operation that built itself on the spot and tackled the myriad immediate needs that the quake left behind.

City officials and private citizens alike assumed control of every aspect of the situation and were sending help to all corners within hours. Through it all, Chance’s calm demeanor and constant stream of information kept the city on a keel that, if not quite even, was at least more level than the ground.

Most importantly, Chance read messages from residents looking for each other, and from loved ones far away, connecting people. Her efforts here helped the city learn that while tsunamis had wiped out small towns on Alaska’s coast and beyond, the city of Anchorage, less than a hundred miles from the epicenter, suffered just nine fatalities. That is fewer than the number that died along the coast of California.

“This Is Chance!” is unlike other accounts of the Anchorage earthquake or other such events. By narrowly focusing on key individuals, making the Public Safety Building his set, and setting aside the science and the impacts of the earthquake elsewhere, he’s created a tale about Anchorage itself, and about those who guided it through its greatest trial. The earthquake merely provides the plot. This is a story about what makes us human.

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