Gov. Bill Walker last week signed into law a bill permanently marking March 27 as Great Alaska Good Friday Earthquake Remembrance Day.
For one former Alaska Air National Guard airman, Chuck Volanti, now of Olympia, Washington, it was the fulfillment of a personal quest.
In 1964, Volanti was a 24-year-old dispatcher at Kulis Air Guard Base at Anchorage International Airport. He rode out the quake with his family in their trailer on Arctic Boulevard and drove to his post as soon as the shaking stopped.
"The airport was in shambles," he recalled. "The tower was down. We weren't sure if the surface was safe to land."
Lt. Col. Thomas Norris managed to taxi a plane to the end of the runway and divert incoming aircraft to Elmendorf Air Force Base, which would be the city's air hub for the next several weeks. During that time, the Alaska Air Guard, with only 10 planes in its inventory, flew hundreds of hours of relief flights, transporting emergency personnel and equipment and evacuating survivors from their wrecked villages and towns.
"Thomas Norris was my boss," Volanti said. "He was also my friend. We were all friends. Our unit was so small that rank didn't really matter. Col. Norris was 'Tom.'"
Norris was also Gov. Bill Egan's pilot of choice. When Egan wanted to check on recovery efforts in Valdez, his hometown, a few weeks after the place was destroyed by a tsunami, he requested Norris for the flight.
The C-123J cargo plane took off from Anchorage early on April 25. Norris was at the controls with a crew that included copilot Maj. James Rowe and flight engineer Staff Sgt. Kenneth Ayers. Along with the governor and several other high-ranking officials on board was Maj. Gen. Thomas Carroll, the adjutant general and commandant of the Alaska National Guard.
The other dignitaries planned to spend the night in Valdez, but when Carroll was asked to stay for dinner he quipped that he'd left his fork in Anchorage and reboarded for the return flight.
"The plane took off, leveled out, then pancaked into Valdez Arm," Volanti said, citing reports from eyewitnesses. "It floated for three or four minutes, then sank.
"To this day, they still don't know what happened. My theory is those wings iced. They really didn't have deicing down at that time."
Camp Carroll at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson is named after Carroll. (His son, Brig. Gen. Thomas C. Carroll, deputy commissioner and chief of staff of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and commander of the Alaska Army National Guard, also died in a plane crash near Juneau that took the lives of seven other guardsmen in 1992.)
The four who died on April 25, 1964, are regularly included in lists of Good Friday earthquake fatalities, estimated at more than 130 people.
In 2013, Volanti testified in Juneau on behalf of making March 27 a day of remembrance. The Alaska Legislature agreed to a one-day observance in a resolution but told him that it would take longer to make the day permanent.
The effort got a push last year, the 50th anniversary of the quake, when Robert Scher, chair of the Alaska Seismic Hazards Safety Commission, suggested to legislators that the day of remembrance be made permanent. He testified that it was not only appropriate to remember those who lost their lives in the disaster but a good time to remind people about earthquake awareness and preparation.
"Damaging quakes happen infrequently enough that they may not occur in our lifetime. But you can't be sure," he told Alaska Dispatch News. "The most cost-effective way to keep it in people's minds is through public education and awareness."
Scher also said that the scientific fallout from the quake continues to this day.
"It advanced the theory of plate tectonics," he said, and "proved the significance of large earthquakes along plate boundaries. It had an effect on building codes drawn from the lessons learned."
To become law, the observance had to go through the longer legislative process. It passed the state House unanimously and the Senate 19-1, but not in time to be signed by March 27. So the annual resolution directed that state flags would be flown at half-staff, a feature included in the new law. The lowering of the flags had been one of Volanti's specific requests.
Volanti was in Alaska in March, pressing his case with politicians. He was back in Washington on April 3 when he received a package from Gov. Walker. Inside was the flag flown over the Alaska Capitol on March 27 this year and a certificate of appreciation to Volanti, "with gratitude for his efforts to memorialize those devastated and lost in the 1964 earthquake."
"I'm over-elated about the law being signed," he told ADN from his home. "I feel that it honors thousands of Alaskans of the past and many who still live across the state. When you called, I was actually writing a letter to (Rep.) Charisse Millett thanking her for taking the lead in this thing from the beginning." Millett was the bill's primary sponsor. Walker signed the bill Saturday.
"It's been a journey of two years, but it's been my honor and my privilege," Volanti said. "Those men were heroes."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing