Remembering the Great Alaska Earthquake

1964Earthquake1"It has been a bad weekend for everyone in this area, but things are starting to straighten themselves out again. On Friday there was really a feeling of despair all over Anchorage, and so many people were practically in a state of shock, but now the strong people are organizing themselves for the job of rebuilding, and the others seem to be swept along with them. Gradually, the necessities of living are being restored to normal. We got electricity back in service at our house on Saturday night, late. Then, Sunday evening the water service was resumed in our neighborhood and we were able to at least have the sanitation facilities, and to have running water for washing. We are not even trying to take care of drinking water, but are getting our water from Army tank trucks, which are around the downtown and outlying areas. You only need to carry it yourself and you can have all you need."

Three days after the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, Donna Rychetnik, then 33, typed this first paragraph of a detailed letter written to her family in Seattle, walking them through the 72 hours since 5:36 p.m. on Friday, March 27, when her Anchorage Romig Hill home and everything in it starting shaking, swaying, or flying through the air. Long distance phone calls were costly and unreliable: the Air Force owned the state's only long distance phone system, so civilians were second in line for service.

An Alaska resident from 1959 to 1989—Donna now lives in Redmond, Washington—at the time she and her late ex-husband Joe Rychetnik were raising their sons Steven 7, and David 11. She had just gotten home from her job at the Alaska Methodist University Library and was making dinner, while the boys watched their favorite TV series Fireball XL5, expecting their father to walk through the door from his job as a staff writer and photographer for the Anchorage Daily Times.

"The quake started when I was just beginning dinner on Friday night, and the boys were both home watching TV. I had only returned home about 10 minutes before, and was grateful that I wasn't still at the store. After the shaking finally stopped, (we had to just watch the dishes coming out of the cupboards, and bottles of vinegar, catsup, and the books on the shelf), we dashed outside and as I came out of the front door, I saw the car still rocking. The [utility] poles were still swaying, and the trees and power lines were swinging back and forth. People were popping out of doors all over the neighborhood, and they all seemed to be as genuinely shocked and dazed as I felt. The boys were frightened, especially Steven, and seemed glad to be out of the house."

An Alaska filmmaker, Steve, now 57, says he his still hyper vigilant about anything that hangs from the ceiling after watching his family's living room lamp swing violently, the fixture repeatedly hitting the ceiling, during what seemed like the longest four minutes of his life. He remembers the TV going dead and being knocked to the floor when trying to stand. Known for having an active imagination, at the time he concluded that the nuclear warheads stored at Fort Richardson were blowing up.

It was not Donna's first earthquake, having experienced the Seattle 1949 Queen Charlotte Islands 6.1 tremor that also rocked parts of Alaska. She maintained composure as she comforted her children and inventoried the situation once dishes, cans, books and ceramics stopped flying out of cupboards and off the shelves from all directions.

"The first thing I did was hugged the kids," she says looking back to that spring evening 50 years ago. "I didn't freak out, because I felt I needed to be calm for them, especially because everything was crashing down around our ears."

When the motion did stop, she took them out of the house and into the 28-degree air and snow-covered front yard where she also saw her neighbors surveying the damage, staring in disbelief, wondering what to do next, and what might happen next. Although they did not know it at the time, the surrounding Turnagain Area on the western edge of Anchorage was one of the neighborhoods hit hardest as the frozen ground broke into huge chunks that split some houses apart and literally swallowed others.

"The damage has been terrible, and almost beyond belief. The more I look around and see what others have suffered the more thankful I am for our own good luck. We had our chimney knocked down and many broken dishes, knick-knacks. Can't really tell you why we did not have any more serious damage, except that our neighborhood was not on a natural fault area, for which we are very thankful. The big problem in our area was people with carports, which fell on their autos and some windows. Our house has some cracks and one gets the feeling that it may have settled in some manner. Nothing really serious, but if you walk across from the back to the front, or from one side to another, there is a feeling of climbing or going down just slightly. The only real evidence is the back porch, which has settled about two inches below its former position at the back door."

Earthquakes come without warning and are commonly followed by aftershocks from the earth readjusting, which can be just as damaging and nerve wracking as the original jolt. For three days after the quake, about 300 aftershocks shook the Southcentral Region. They continued for 18 months, eventually numbering 10,000. No sooner had Donna and her boys walked back into the house when the aftershocks sent them back outside until the shaking subsided and they could focus on cleaning up and finding candles and a small camping stove. The strongest aftershock came in the middle of the night, shaking the family awake. "Things were moving around for a week," she says. Her nerves were on high alert, never knowing how long it would last, until eventually she became "numb to the useless concern" of worrying about when the next jolt would occur. "It was easier to let go and get back to normal," she says.

About three hours after the first quake, Joe, who had been busy photographing damage downtown, came home to settle his family before leaving again to cover the breaking story, including capturing photos that ran worldwide under the Associated Press banner. Later that evening he returned home and took Donna downtown to show her the mass destruction of the city including collapsed buildings, sunken streets, crumbled concrete slabs, and building foundations that had been displaced from a geological layer of clay, saturated with water and liquefied under pressure, that caused the earth above to slide toward Cook Inlet. The north side of 4th Avenue sank the equivalent of an entire building floor and the new five-story J.C. Penney building was totaled.

"He left us the transistor radio so that we could have some idea of what was happening...and helped me the light the camp stove to melt snow water for coffee. It is a good thing that I started on that, because we had probably 20-25 people in and out of the house that evening for coffee and sandwiches. They were civil defense people, and people whose homes had been devastated, and military people who had been called in. I know that snow water is not very desirable, but by the time I had boiled it to melt, and then filtered it through the coffee maker, it seemed safe enough to drink. Sure tasted good, anyway."

Statewide property damage was staggering, totaling more than $500 million, though Alaska's low-density population and other factors reduced the damage that would typically result from a megathrust of 9.2: it started at 5:36 p.m. when schools and businesses were empty, and it was the Good Friday holiday. In the moments following the quake and the days after, hardy Alaskans quickly organized to help each other out offering their homes and businesses for lodging, as communications hubs and gathering spots for those whose homes had crumbled or sunken into the earth. In the following weeks and months the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers re-opened highways, re-established water and fuel supplies, and raced to repair vital infrastructure before the coming winter season.

"I am sure that very few people slept that night whether they were in their own beds, or staying with someone else. Lots of people were put up at lodge halls and places like that. The VFW post by our house was [filled with] almost all people who lived in Turnagain. Saturday morning, Joe brought home a family who had been put out of their home in Turnagain, and they stayed with us until Sunday evening. They stayed in the living room on the couch, and the boys doubled up to allow the little boy to sleep in that room. Somehow the whole affair seemed like camping out, with the snow melting for wash water and dishes, and no toilet, and eating sandwiches and stuff like that. The people coming in and out created an untold amount of confusion."

Joe was known for inviting people home without notice, so when his media contemporaries from National Geographic, Life magazine and West Coast news bureaus needed a place to stay while covering the story, they showed up at the Rychetniks, typewriters in tow. For three days, journalists and survivors rotated through their home on West 23rd, some just for coffee, some for a couple of days, others for as long as a week, sleeping on beds, cots, couches, or wherever they could make space.

"We weren't rich, by any means, but people had a need and we did what we could to help them," she says, adding that their freezer, stocked with moose and fish, meant there was no shortage of fresh meat.

A memory she shares with Steve is a case of fresh asparagus that showed up at the house a couple of weeks after the earthquake. It was a thank you gift from the National Geographic writer who Donna had told over coffee that the one thing she missed about living in the Lower 48 States was the lack of affordable, fresh vegetables.

The first time the phone rang after being without service for three days, it was like a signal that life was on its way back to some level of normalcy, Donna says. Her letter spans a three-day period from the Good Friday earthquake until the following Monday, though the drama, uncertainty, and being surrounded by destruction made the weekend seem much longer. Everyone was still in a daze, she wrote, and she and her friends all reported feeling preoccupied and unfocused, resulting from pure nerves and reeling from the after effects.

"A few more days should help us all. The public schools will not be opening again for a few days and the downtown businesses perhaps for months. Most of them were severely damaged. Some places have not yet been cleared out and are but a pile of rubble. The frost and frozen ground is holding many places together, which will slide again and collapse as the thawing begins. It is a common thought that every day will see a new slide or two as the thaw becomes more widespread."

Although Donna's optimism helped her family, friends and neighbors adapt during the days and weeks following the quake, she writes that after the shock of the first emergency when the "thinking start[ed] again," she began to process the far-reaching, long-lasting effects of the disaster.

"Gasoline is now rationed, as the storage tanks at Anchorage, Seward, Valdez and Whittier have all gone up either through explosion, fire, or leaking. This will create a fuel shortage for heating purposes also. The big concern is how people will recover from the financial destruction...and of course insurance doesn't cover earthquake damage. The businesses which have been virtually wiped out have pay days today and tomorrow, but no business from now on, and no jobs for their employees. How to solve it? Such a disaster is almost too much to believe if you aren't in the middle."

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