Alaska Life

'It seemed to last forever': Memories of the Great Alaska Earthquake

A large number of readers who survived the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964 have written to the Daily News about what they saw. What follows is a sample of their letters and emails.

Carol Ann Kompkoff's story is excerpted from "The Day That Cries Forever," a moving collection of stories from Chenega, which lost a third of its population in the tsunamis that followed the quake, published by Chenega Future Inc. and available at

The Kodiak reminiscences are taken from "9.2: Kodiak and the world's second-largest earthquake," published by the Kodiak Daily Mirror and the Baranov Museum, a well-written chronicle of how the disaster affected communities on that island with gripping photos, available at

- Mike Dunham

Mike Weinstein, Turnagain, Anchorage

My two friends (John Tegstron and Norman Rokeberg) and I were in the Turnagain neighborhood when it hit. We were all about 19 or 20. We grabbed an ax and rope and went out to see if we could help people. At one point we came upon the McKnights, an elderly couple in great distress. We talked to her and could only see part (of her) but she said she felt fine. Mr. McKnight was nearby in the open. He looked bad; he had an ankle or leg that I think was broken in two or three places.

A helicopter came to take out the injured. It could only take one at a time. Mr. McKnight told us to take his wife out first. We went to lift a beam off of the lady. There was only half of her. The beam was holding her insides in. We set the beam back down and looked at each other. Then we got Mr. McKnight into the helicopter. We stayed with Mrs. McKnight as the poor lady died.


Carol Ann Kompkoff, Chenega

I was walking with my two sisters to the outhouse at the end of the dock when the earthquake struck. The whole dock was moving back and forth. My 10-year-old sister, Julia, told us to go back. We saw our father running down to the beach to look for our three older brothers. When the ground finally stopped shaking, the water went out of the bay. The whole bay was empty! The first giant wave was coming in. My father grabbed my three-year-old sister, Norma Jean, and me and told Julia to follow him and to run as fast as she could.

The wave caught Julia as it was going out, and when my father reached out to grab her, he lost hold of Norma. I remember seeing my godmother, Anna Vlasoff, standing in the doorway of her house, which was floating by. She was calling to my father in Segcestun -- our Native language. She was telling my father to hand me to her. She knew my sisters were already gone.

Only my father and I made it up the hill near the school, where a light pole fell on him and hurt his back, and he lost hold of me as well. My uncle, Henry Selanoff, and Mike Eleshansky pulled me out of the water from atop a snow bank behind the church. I was wearing a hooded jacket. They grabbed the hood to pull me out of the water.

It was awful. I was wet and cold and crying while walking around looking for my mother. Everyone up at the school was crying. People were looking for their lost children and other family members. Many of them were never found.

Omar Stratman, Kalsin Bay, Kodiak

This fellow (Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Gordon Wallace) was on the porch; he was all wet, just sopping wet, and his clothes were tattered and torn, and terrible-looking. He said, "They all died," or "They're all dead." We said, "Who?" and he said, "everybody, including my family."

Chaille Yasuda, Valdez

My name was Shelley Kangas in 1964. I had just gotten home and my mother was making me a cup of cocoa. Suddenly, the omnipresent screeching noise began. It sounded like D8 Cats with their blades dropped going in all directions.

Our house was wrenching apart at the seams and the next scene I registered was so unbelievable to me that I didn't mention it until years later. It was the whole bottom of the steamship Chena high up in the air that I saw through our kitchen window facing the ocean. And I mean way up in the air. I saw the whole bottom of that giant steamship literally flying and rolling in the air above where the docks had been.

Our grandmother, Nevelo, was living with us. When we were able to stand, I thought of her and went to the back bedroom to help her. After I brought her to my mother, my dad and I went across to help Mrs. Woodman. We knew her husband was out at 40 Mile. My dad was able to break down the door, which had been crunched into an unusable shape. She was in her 80s, as was my grandmother, and we had to be careful traveling with her.

I remember looking toward the coast and seeing the water rising towards us. The ocean water was turning the snow black, which made it easy to see how fast it was rising towards us.

I don't remember anyone speaking a word for hours. Until nightfall. Through that night the sadness was overwhelming as people gathered first at the destroyed bridge at the back of town and then at 45 Mile Roadhouse as we began to know how many had been killed on the docks and the nearby villages.

After it got dark, the storage tanks began to burn. The fires became red, twisting fire tornados. The sky became black with smoke in the cul de sac that was Old Valdez close to the mountains. It literally looked and felt like Dante's Hell.

Frank Cloutier, Turnagain

(from a letter to his parents dated March 29, 1964)

I was on my way home from work Friday and in the process of running a couple of errands. Suddenly I felt a weird, wobbling sensation as if a wheel were about to fall off. I pulled over and stopped so I wouldn't lose that wheel only to discover that my car wasn't wobbling -- the road was. For an instant I was relieved because I was already anticipating car repairs. Then I got things back into perspective.


I hopped back into the car and headed home, now only two blocks away. The earth was still shaking. For a few hundred yards it was quite a drive.

When I got home (daughter) Cindy was still crying, but (wife) Durelle had everything under control. I did decide that it would be a good idea to get out of the house, so we all got in the car and wandered over in the direction of a friend's house a couple of miles away. After we had travelled down MacKenzie Drive a few blocks, I realized that the horizon had changed. I turned the car around and parked (and) ran down to the point where the road disappeared.

My first impression was that it looked as if someone had dropped a giant box of peanut brittle. Thousands of chunks of those 3-foot-thick slabs were jumbled in unreal disorder. These pieces varied in width from 5 to 100 feet. About a block from where I stood I could see my boss's house. Major Jack Hornsby, his wife, four kids, house, car and dog had dropped en masse about 40 feet and slid north toward Cook Inlet almost a block.

I yelled to him to find out what his immediate needs were. He said his family was OK and that there were many people who would need ropes, helicopters, wrecking bars and first aid gear. I couldn't get through to the Air Force Base by phone to call on my radar shop, but I briefed a mobile ham operator on what I knew and he started the wheels rolling.

It took about 15 minutes to navigate the crevasses between the broken end of the road and Hornsby's house. Normally it is only a block. I joined him, and in the next two or three hours we led several people out. There was an amazing calmness and sense of purpose. How those helicopters found places to land in those shambles is beyond me, but they must have made a dozen trips while I was there.

I crawled through one house that was actually upside down.

We finally quit and crawled back to his badly worried family. We all piled into my car, went home, settled the kids down with some hot chocolate (heated over a propane torch), and began to lay out some bedding. Then that teetotalling Southern Baptist got himself outside about four ounces of bourbon just as if he knew what it was for. I can't say that I was surprised. Considering the state of shock, I'm sure it did a lot of good.

Joseph Kostenko, Eagle River


We lived in a log cabin my father and uncle built, where Eagle River Campground is now. My grandmother and I were in the kitchen when it started. The refrigerator fell against the kitchen door frame, but she was able to crawl under it. We stood, as best we could, in the doorway, looking out to the northwest. The sound was so loud that you could barely hear. It seemed to last forever, but apparently it only lasted four or five minutes. Our black and white TV had fallen over 3 feet, face-down, onto the floor, but was undamaged, and lasted another three years. Most of the dishes were broken, along with numerous canned goods in Mason jars. The house, hand-built with interlocking fir logs, was undamaged.

Our dogs, outside in pens, had all broken free and died.

Cathy Bressette, Seward

I was nine years old at the time. I remember running out to the kitchen where my mother and father were. I can still see my father with his long arms spread wide trying to hold kitchen cupboards on either side closed shut. I remember my mother saying, "How am I going to get this mess cleaned by Easter?"

Once we went outside, we became aware that the Texaco oil storage tanks a few blocks away had exploded. We knew we should leave.

I remember seeing a huge wall of gray water off in the distance. At the time, I did not know about tidal waves. We opted to drive to higher ground, specifically Dairy Hill. We saw our neighbor Jo Reid and her girls. Jo told us girls to watch what was going on in the harbor because we would want to remember this.

Seeing the radio station, which was located about two blocks from my house, go floating by was a mental preparation that our house would be gone, too. I remember watching the huge, muddy waves carrying much debris for a long time.

Up on Dairy Hill a group of about 30 of us ended up spending the evening at the home of Winnie and Herman Leirer. The group was not necessarily friends, just people who knew each other from living in a small community. Yet we were warmly received and cared for, including food and sleep. This was a story played out all over Seward. That sense of community has stayed with me all these years.

The next morning we woke up to an almost eerie quiet. We drove down the hill and back toward our house. We saw a railroad car that had been moved to the base of the hillside. Boats were in trees, railroad ties twisted in knots.

There was no trace of our house. It had been carried one block over and two blocks down, resting in the lagoon with water up to the roof line. The docks in Seward were wiped out. So along with losing our home, my father also lost his livelihood.

Nancy Platt Bidwell, Anchorage

I had been shopping and had just left Penney's and walked over to Alaska Cleaners at 201 E. Fourth Ave. I was meeting my boyfriend, who worked at the cleaners. He was still unloading his truck when I arrived. I hopped in the back of his truck as I heard a very loud roar and the truck started shaking. I thought my boyfriend was shaking the truck to scare me. I yelled at him to stop and then he appeared at the back of the truck, eyes as big as saucers, and yelled for me to get out of the truck .


We ran to the side of the building and hung onto the parking meters until the bricks started to crash down around us. One brick scraped my leg and it started to bleed. I was screaming. I got knocked to the ground and crawled out in the middle of the intersection facing west on Fourth Avenue. We pulled ourselves up and hung onto the fins of a 1959 Cadillac and rode out the waves. We could see the road and buildings collapsing down a few blocks by the Denali Theater. We just knew that the road under our feet would be sinking at any minute. But then, after three or four minutes, the shaking stopped.

People were screaming and you could still hear buildings crashing to the ground.

Someone ran by, saying that Penney's had collapsed and that there were people crushed in their cars, so we ran over to the next block to see what happened. Mostly dust at first, as hundreds of people were running around or some just standing in shock. A lot of people were crying, screaming and sobbing. I did see several crushed cars and a little boy about 4 years old standing by one car crying out for mommy. A policeman came by and scooped him up.

My boyfriend and I went back to Alaska Cleaners and jumped in his truck and headed out to Elmendorf Air Force Base, where his parents lived. It took us over four hours to get to the Base. My boyfriend's dad was a ham operator, so he was on the radio trying to find out anything he could. All roads to Turnagain by the Sea were blocked, so there was no point in trying to go home. I stayed there for two days and spent a lot of time listening to the ham radio and calling the Red Cross about my parents and my 7-year-old sister. Finally, I got word that they were OK.

I went home on the morning of the third day, but was stopped at the end of my street by the National Guard. All of Turnagain was blocked off and secured from looting by the National Guard. I had no ID. I asked the guardsman to call my parents and he did. My dad came down to get me. My dad was crying because he was so happy to see me.

(Our house) was off its foundation, with large cracks in the yard. All the windows were boarded up, as they had all broken. My mom had been preparing sauerkraut for dinner the night of the quake and that smell stayed in the house for months. We couldn't get rid of it until we painted.


My dad had just retired from the Air Force the year before and we had a lot of C-Rations, batteries, jerrycans of water and sleeping bags. We had a camp stove too. My dad believed in being prepared. But he was prepared for a bombing from Russia, not an earthquake.

People kept their sense of humor through it all. Turnagain by the Sea became "Turnagain in the Sea." The thing I hated the most was having to use a honey bucket.

I was a student life editor of the Anchor, our yearbook. I lost my new Kodak 35 mm camera that was a Christmas present from my parents when the second floor of West High collapsed and took my locker down with it.

After about two weeks, I found out that the West students would be double-shifting at East High since our school was so badly damaged. We got the afternoon shift right after lunch and the bus would take us around back of the school and drop us off, then go around front to pick up the Eastsiders and take them home, so we didn't see much of them.

When graduation came, we all -- about 880 students from both West and East -- graduated from a hangar out on Elmendorf Air Force Base. I think we were all so glad to not have to go back to school.

Ron Berger, Fort Richardson

I arrived at Fort Richardson on March 4, 1964, as my duty assignment in the U.S. Army. On Good Friday I went over to the Post Exchange to buy a shirt as my civilian clothes had not arrived yet. While standing in line to pay for it I put the shirt under my arm and had my hand in my pocket when I thought we were starting to have another small earthquake. At first I thought nothing of it until things started falling off the shelves and people were going outside into the parking lot. I joined them.

The blacktop was rolling like waves on the water, cars were bouncing up and down and people where staggering around like drunks. My first thoughts were that Russia had dropped a bomb in Alaska. I was raised in Detroit and went through the era of air-raid shelters and duck-and-cover during the threat of war with Russia.

The Post Exchange was closed and everyone was ordered to report back to their unit. I got to the third floor of my cinder block barracks building and was standing next to my bunk bed when I realized I still had my left hand in my pocket with the shirt still under my arm.

The next morning I was assigned to the Turnagain area to prevent looters and to assist people in need. Lots of people in my unit were so scared they didn't take their clothes or boots off for fear of having to run outside. Some wound up with foot infections.

Jim Crittenden, Chester Creek

Our family home was a block from what is now called Valley of the Moon Park; back then, it was all woods extending from 15th Avenue all the way to Fireweed Lane. The only thing between us and Spenard was the old swimming pool called the "Spa" and Chester Creek. My cousin Jamie Blair had come over came to visit. (We) went to the swimming pool, which was just below our family home.

As the quake first began, it was not immediately apparent to us that we were even having an earthquake because, being in the water, we could not feel the initial temblors. But it did not take long before we had some pretty good-sized waves forming in the pool. At first I thought someone must have jumped off the diving board and created the waves. But quickly my cousin and I realized something was terribly wrong. We started swimming up and down the waves trying to reach the edge of the pool. Once we grabbed the edge of the pool we could really feel the violent force shaking us and the pool.

I clawed my way out of the pool until I was on my hands and knees. My cousin didn't need to crawl out; he was swept out by a wave.

There on the side of the pool, we felt the entire earth heaving and groaning. Looking out of the windows toward the woods and Chester Creek, you could see the spruce trees swaying back and forth looking just like wiper blades on a car. It was as if the land had become liquid and was now full of waves.

Still in the pool were several people clinging to the sides with death grips. One girl looked so wide-eyed and scared (even more than I was). I reached out a hand and helped pull her out. We then all crawled our way to the dressing rooms, dodging falling objects.

Somehow we all managed to exit the building safely and once outside we somberly walked back home.

Dan Presley, Happy Valley

I was 10 years old, living between Ninilchik and Anchor Point on a small farm. So I was in the barn, (with the) milk cow in the stall, and was milking away. Suddenly the cow became very agitated and started lunging, trying to get out of the stall. (She) kicked my milk bucket over and was bawling. Then the earthquake hit and it was really going for it and the cow was really frantic. I opened the station and let her out. I went out and crawled onto the fence and started riding it, yelling, "Yahoo! Yahoo!"

Karen Avila-Lederhos, Latouche Street

I'll never forget the look on my dad's face, the fear in his huge, round, black-brown eyes when he came through the back door not long after the quake. Dad had Gil's Aircraft Service, an airplane repair shop on Merrill Field. I am sure he must have thought we were all dead. Mom (a nurse) sent Dad and us girls to the hospital to see if she was needed there. (At Providence) a man asked about injuries and told us no nurses were needed. But when we got home, Mom was already in her white uniform, nylons, shoes and nurse's cap, ready to go. The radio had announced that all nurses and doctors were to report to local hospitals. So she was out the door and headed down Northern Lights toward Providence.

(Dad) piled us all in the car and took us down Gambell to Merrill Field. There, from the top of the "new tower," Dad and his three little girls got a bird's-eye view of the destruction. Hangars and planes were damaged on the field, downtown was upheaved, Turnagain was on its side, the International Airport tower had tumbled down and everywhere were cracks in the ground.

The next morning three hungry girls were treated again with an old hot pot full of oatmeal that the nuns at the hospital sent home with Mom to feed us. Three little girls could stay with the neighbors across the street. Mr. and Mrs. K's whole family was there, because they had a fireplace. But there was a warning from our parents: "If they start drinking beer, you three come home."

We never told Mom and Dad that Mr. and Mrs. K and all the grown-ups there were not only drinking beer but lots of beer.

Within a few days, ham radio was used to contact my dad's family in California and a telegram (which I still have) was sent to my mother's parents in Kentucky to assure them of our safety.

School was closed two weeks -- a little more for Lake Otis due to a gas leak. We celebrated Easter a week later after my poor mother spent hours scrubbing four dozen dried eggs off the linoleum kitchen floor. And Mom wasn't too happy about the new President Johnson, either. He only sent his vice president, Humphrey, to Alaska to survey the damage. Both of my parents insisted that President Kennedy would have come himself.

Richard Clark, Kodiak

(Clark was a Marine stationed in Kodiak in 1964.)

We had orders to spend the night inside (the bank building) with loaded rifles, not to allow anyone inside and to stay awake. (Maj. Richard Jones) gave us a password and told us that anyone who tried to enter the bank that night without giving that password was to be shot. No questions asked.

Pete Deveau, Kodiak

(Deveau was the mayor of Kodiak in 1964.)

Martial law was never declared in Kodiak officially. We said it was martial law but actually it wasn't. We used the threat of martial law to close all the bars.

Gladys Meacock, Abbott Loop

Construction work was slow in Anchorage, so my husband Dale Wilson took a job in Juneau. As I was putting (daughter Sheryl) in her high chair, a friend, Art, poked his head in the back door. He was heading to Juneau and wanted to know if I needed anything sent to Dale. At that very moment, the ground started a rapid up-down movement and there was a lot of heavy-to-the-ear noise. Art yelled "earthquake!" and headed out the back door. I said, "No, it's just a road grader." As I picked Sheryl up, but before I could finish my sentence, the ground movement threw us to the floor.

Somehow I got to my feet; Sheryl was hanging on (to me) for dear life. As I stepped out onto the small porch 4 feet above ground, we were thrown to the ground, landing about 8 feet away.

I looked at the house and could see daylight as the house left the foundation on the corner closest to us and slammed back down, forming a dust cloud each time. Across the street, there was a crack in the ground opening and closing and rapidly traveling towards my neighbor's house on the corner. I saw the crack go under the house; it was as if time stood still, and I then saw the house buckle in the middle. It was as if I could hear a big "whoomp" but knew it was my mind adding the expected noise.

When Dale heard (of) the severity of the quake, he made a decision to head to Anchorage. When he arrived at the now very busy Juneau airport, he was informed there were no seats available on any plane to Anchorage. He, a tall, large person, walked over to the passengers in line, lifted a Pathe News rep, complete with cameras, out of the line and said, "Now there is. I have family in Anchorage."

He was allowed on the plane.

Gene Sundberg, Kodiak

(Sundberg sheltered 21 people in his house after the 1964 tsunami.)

"We immediately ran out of coffee and toilet paper. As a result, we have never again run out of either."

Jeanne Waite Follett, Anchorage

I had less than a half-hour to get the news stories ready for the announcer at KFQD Radio to read during the six o'clock news. This was our major newscast for the day. I kicked off my high-heeled shoes and rested my feet on the lower bar of the typewriter stand ... when the building began to shake

Dennis O'Day, the station engineer, ran out the front door of the station yelling, "My tower! My tower!" Behind him, a massive steel safe, over 4 feet tall, rolled across the floor, imprisoning Ron Moore, the announcer, in the on-air booth. Fortunately, the booth had two entrances and he ran out the other, also yelling, "Everyone get out!"

I staggered like a drunk across the parking lot to my car, where I grabbed the door handle with both hands to keep upright. The tall tower behind the station was swaying horribly. The frozen ground under my feet was a spiderweb of cracks.

Behind me, across KFQD Road (now Northern Lights Boulevard), in the newest residential subdivision called Turnagain by the Sea, came sounds like tiny ladyfinger firecrackers exploding. I opened the door of my car, thinking it would be better to sit than try to stand on the bucking, cracking, hard-packed snow. As soon as I sat, I knew it was a mistake. If a crevasse opened beneath me, I would have less time to leap to safety. I stood again, hoping this interminable shaking would subside, but every time I thought it was easing, it would roar back to life.

Standing in the parking lot, both hands hanging onto the door handle of my bouncing Studebaker Lark, I wondered about the noises I was hearing from the Turnagain subdivision.

I wasn't really sure when the shaking stopped. Denny, the engineer, ran back into the station and checked for fires and damage to the equipment. The announcers followed. When they signaled an "all clear," (co-worker) Donna and I went inside.

The electricity was out; phones didn't work. Situated on the outskirts of the city, we had little knowledge of damage elsewhere. Our building was okay, the broadcast tower still stood and we were alive.

My parents lived a little more than a mile away and I went to check on them. The paved section of KFQD Road was a mess. The pavement was buckled and broken and I frequently had to pull off the road and circle around chunks of asphalt.

All was well with their log home, except a bottle of my mother's homemade wine had fallen from a shelf and broken. She was mad as a hornet. I swapped my Studebaker for my dad's WWII vintage Willys Jeep. I figured I could get anywhere around town with the Jeep's high clearance and four-wheel drive.

Denny started the emergency generator in the basement and got the station back on air. It was then 20 minutes after the quake. Eventually the other stations in the city began broadcasting.

Denny was also deputy director of the state's Civil Defense emergency radio network, and had a mobile unit that could connect with emergency frequencies. Immediately, KFQD committed to broadcasting emergency messages only. At 10,000 watts, it was the city's most powerful radio station.

Marc McNab, Mountain View

My family was living in a trailer court. We had just finished dinner and mother didn't have all of the dirty dishes picked up when we felt the first few shakes.

My little 4-year-old brother was concerned that our television might be in danger, so he stopped on the way out to put his arms around it. My step-father pulled him off and we were all outside trying desperately to stand up. My 7-year-old sister was hugging the one birch tree we had in the yard. I was 8 years old and to me it was (like) standing up in a rowboat in rough water, but having nothing to hold onto.

A favorite television program of my younger siblings was "Romper Room" (a local show with hostess and children guests). But for the next few months, Miss Carol did the whole show without any kids.