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Alaska Life

A family earthquake story, passed down like an heirloom

  • Author: Julia O'Malley
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 27, 2014

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.

The Great Alaska Earthquake happened on March 27, Good Friday and a school holiday. It was almost exactly 50 years ago. My mom and dad lived in Anchorage, but they didn't know each other yet. Mom, who was 14, spent the afternoon with a friend, sorting out phone books for distribution near where the Egan Center is now. Her parents, brother and sister were home in Nunaka Valley. Dad, who was 15, was at home at 10th Avenue and Cordova Street.

Just after 5 p.m., Mom and her friend started walking east down Fifth Avenue, crossing E Street, and then heading down the block, past a bank and the Book Cache. They stopped in front of JC Penney, then a brand new building.

Mom's friend wanted to go in, but Mom wouldn't. (Her parents told her never to cross a picket line, she said.) They walked down the block and met Mom's friend's mother, who was getting her hair done inside the Uptown Beauty Salon, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and D Street. (Before the 5th Avenue mall was built, JC Penney was a free-standing store. D Street connected Fifth and Sixth. An alley ran parallel to Fifth, between C and E streets, just south of the JC Penney building.)

A few blocks away, at Dad's house, six of the nine O'Malley kids were just about to eat dinner. The menu, according to Aunt Barbara: filet of sole, boiled potatoes and peas. My grandmother was in Washington, D.C., with the oldest and the youngest kids. Tommy was in Turnagain. My grandfather, Old Doc O'Malley, was at the office, located at Fifth Avenue and I Street. The kids were watching a sci-fi show on TV called "Fireball XL5."

The minute hand on the clock at the O'Malley house clicked to 5:36 and a curious, loud rumble came from outside, overtaking the sound of the TV. Then the house started to shake.

"I thought, 'Hey, earthquake, cool,'" Dad told me. "But then it never stopped."

The movement intensified, he said. (The quake, a magnitude 9.2, lasted a really long time, three to five minutes depending on where you were. My dad's sister Peggy told me she was able to run upstairs, go to three bedrooms saving breakables and a goldfish, fill the bathtub with water and then run out of the house with the shaking going that whole time.) It was hard to walk, Dad said. The light over the table swayed. The old doorbell clanged.

"The whole house was just kind of making a lot of cracking and popping noises," Dad said.

He could see trees swaying outside. Electrical lines yanked back and forth, arching, throwing out blue light. A car drove by the house, seemingly oblivious.

Meanwhile, at the Uptown Beauty Salon, Mom ran through the shop, avoiding fluorescent light tubes that were dropping, and out to the alley.

"I would say probably 15 seconds into the earthquake, it became apparent it was like something nobody had experienced before," she said.

Both Mom and Dad described their focus narrowing as the shaking went on and everything became too strange to process. Mom said she stared across the alley at a dog tied to the door knob of a little house. As waves rolled through the ground, the house would rise, pulling the dog up, then it would fall, pulling the dog down. Dad made it to the threshold of his house. The tiles on the floor in the entryway were snapping, he said.

"This dust and shattered little crumbs kind of came up in the air," he said. "You focused on the little details because at the base of it you were just terrified."

Mom walked behind the beauty shop to where the alley met D Street. (She was standing at a spot that is inside the 5th Avenue mall now.) A stylist from the salon grabbed her and held her.

"She kept saying, 'Oh my God, look at Penney's! Oh my God, look at Penney's!" Mom said.

Mom looked. The walls of the new department store began to sluff. Huge concrete slabs slammed into the street, revealing the store inside. Mom turned her head away and started praying, she said. She could see people pouring out of the back of the store. Waves of earth under the parking lot pushed the parked cars up and let them fall. They crashed together.

Then the shaking stopped. Dazed people wandered down Fifth Avenue. Mom saw a guy in a towel who'd come out of a hotel, she said. She forgot that her parents weren't at work, and started walking east toward her mother's office. Her shoes were new. The street was full of slush and debris. She wasn't thinking straight. She took her shoes off and kept going in stocking feet, passing David Green Master Furrier, where she saw someone walk off with a coat.

When she got to her mother's office, she saw the upper floor had collapsed. She was standing outside it when my grandfather rolled by in his car, noticed her and stopped.

Old Doc O'Malley, down at Sixth and I Street, made his way home shortly after the quake. One wall of his office had collapsed. It sat on the edge of a fissure that ran through downtown. He got home, saw that the children were well, went upstairs to rest, and then he made his way to the hospital to work. That's where he ran into Perry Mead, a family friend and doctor, my aunts told me.

Mead was working through tears. He lived in Turnagain and had five children. His children were at home during the earthquake. Depending which of my aunts tells the story, Mead was either gone or had just pulled up to the house when the quake struck. Four of the children ran outside when it happened. The oldest, also named Perry, ran back in for the youngest, Merrell, who was just a toddler. Then the house broke up, slid out toward the inlet and was buried. The three remaining children were rescued from a deep crevice with ropes. The house and the two boys were never found.

In the days that followed the earthquake, there were no utilities or telephone service. My dad mainly remembers that he had to keep filling the bathtub up with snow for drinking water and making fires in the fireplace. My mother's mother was a geologist, and their house in Nunaka Valley was where all the visiting geologists stayed as they studied what happened. Mom babysat and cooked for a week, she said. A few times a day, there were aftershocks and everybody ran outside.

Years passed, and the downtown blocks the earthquake destroyed were rebuilt. JC Penney was reconstructed and the mall came in with its sky-bridges. There are new hotels and apartments and the Nesbett Courthouse. Sometimes when I'm down there, especially when I'm in an elevator, I think about my parents' earthquake stories and it makes me shiver. What would happen if I heard that rumbling sound? What would I do then?

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