Georgiana Jana Llaneza – Anchorage

When the Music Stopped Playing

I was 11-1/2 years old at the time the Great Alaskan earthquake struck. We lived in the basement unit at 1505 Orca Street in Anchorage. When the quake struck, Father was working, Mother was cooking dinner in the kitchen at the far end of the house, and the baby was in his high chair close to Mother. I was lying barefoot on Mother’s bed, singing a popular song with the radio. My brothers were outside playing. As usual, our parakeet, “Pretty Boy,” flitted about his cage chattering incessantly.

Unlike the older of my younger brothers, who never realized a quake hit, the noise of the earth’s rumbling and the crashing of dishes alerted me instantly that something was terribly awry. Seconds after the rumbling and violent shaking began, Mother screamed from the kitchen at one end of our basement unit, “Get Out! Get Outside!” The radio crashed to the floor, our dinner flew off the stove, chairs scooted and fell, books and crafts flew into our flight path. I can only imagine what “Pretty Boy” experienced in his cage suspended from a spring in the kitchen.

Spurred by the tone of Mother’s voice, I instantly scrambled off the bed and instantly lost my balance as my feet hit the wobbling tile. I tried to stand again, and fell after one or two steps. Mother came rushing through, clutching the baby, her face tight with tension, screaming even more hysterically, “Get Outside! Now! Run! Run!”

I scrambled and ran, but as the earth continued to shake violently, I once again fell, landing directly in Mother’s path. Mother hurtled over me with the baby in her arms, screaming in a voice raw with fear and despair, “Get Out! Get Out! Get Out!”

As I watched her disappear through the front doorway, suddenly a fierce emotion seized me, and I began to crawl furiously on all fours. By the time I reached the front doorway, the earth’s shaking had stopped. Mother was outside at the top of the stairwell with my 2 younger brothers, looking towards the dark basement, paralyzed with fear and trepidation, her eyes searching. I’ll never forget the look on her face when I finally appeared. If she could have, she would have flown down the stairwell to me, but since she had two other children to consider and one of them was in arms, she stood at the top of the stairs and called to me. Regaining my footing, I ran up the flight of stairs to her. Within an instant, mother was once again the stern mother hen, clucking orders, and instructing us to climb inside the Rambler and wait for her.

We obeyed. As we huddled together, cold and scared in the back of the Rambler, mother ran in search of my brother, Robert, screaming his name throughout the neighborhood as she quickly scoured the streets. Within a few minutes, Mother returned to the 3 of us, empty handed and dejected. Ordering us to stay, she ventured into the basement alone, and returned with our coats, the car keys, and her purse. When she noticed my bare feet, I recall her lecturing me on never going barefooted again and then she fell silent and put the Rambler into gear. As she drove to East Northern Lights Boulevard to fetch our father, dodging asphalt eruptions and asphalt cracks and valleys in the roadway, tears streamed down her face. We remained silent.

Gratefully, our basement unit was relatively undamaged and by nightfall, my brother Robert was returned home, unharmed. Our home became a refuge for three other families and a young man. From that point forward, life for the next several days took on a surrealistic feel.

Altogether, there were 23 of us in that basement refuge. Fortunately, one of the men, Curtis, worked at Fort Richardson, and through him, we had access to military water in large cardboard boxes containing flexible plastic containers with spouts. We supplemented that water with boiled snow treated with Clorox. It was the children’s job to collect snow in pots to melt so we would have water for washing and the toilet. I remember during the next few days that the radio ran day and night-playing only news-there was no time for music.

Early every morning for the next couple of weeks, my Father left together with the other men. I remember they would return long after dark, filthy and exhausted. They would sit down and eat voraciously while the womenfolk doted on them and then, one by one, they would turn into bed, murmuring about the sights they had seen that day. All I knew was that they were volunteering along with other men from the city to help clean up the mess, and to repair broken gas, water, and sewage lines throughout the city.

There were five women and it seems they never slept! If you wanted to find one, you could always find them gathered round the wooden picnic table in the kitchen, sleeping babies in their arms, murmuring together. When the women were not in the kitchen, they were caring for the children and men.

I was the oldest of all the children, so it was my responsibility to keep the younger ones out of the way of the adults, coordinate the many snow-gathering expeditions, and round up the kids for mealtime. By mid-week, our meals consisted of unremarkable government rations that I believe may have come from the military bases.

All the children (there were nine of us not including the two babies) shared a full-sized bed set up in the parlor area. It was comforting to sleep with company, even though we were arranged like so many clothespins, lined up neatly, side by side, our heads at opposite ends of the bed. Most of the children slept well, but I could not for each time I felt a tremor, I would sit up, ready to run again.

Eventually, life began to return to normal. We were all shepherded to one of the undamaged schools in the area to receive our typhoid shots. I remember watching my brother, Robert, the older of my younger brothers, stagger over to the glass windows after receiving his typhoid shot and then fainting to the floor. I thought it was rather comical at the time. In fact, I’m still chuckling at this moment, as I recall how his eyes rolled up into his head and he sank to the floor with an unceremonious sigh.

Eventually, the schools reopened. I attended Fairview Elementary. Twelve blocks away, the Denali school had been rendered unusable, so we shared our school by attending in shifts. Fairview started the day with the early morning shift and Denali took the late shift. During those days, classes and playground times were shortened. Long after I had gone home, Denali students were just beginning the school day.

Permission to play on the school grounds came only after the Denali students had gone home late in the evening. I remember how much my brothers and I loved to ice skate. After the Good Friday earthquake, we rarely had the opportunity to skate at the school playground. Father’s answer to our dilemma was to help us build our own ice rink in the backyard. Although crude, and full of bumps that could send you flying through the air, the rough rink generated many happy memories for the entire neighborhood until the spring thaw.

Interestingly, after the 9.2 earthquake, “Pretty Boy” never flew again, choosing instead to walk about his cage walls and floor or on the floors and tables of our home. If “Pretty Boy” wanted to get down, he jumped, or used drapes for ladders, but he never flew again.

Of course, after school started, everyone began trickling back to their own homes. The radio started playing music once again. Although it was nice to have my own bed back again, I missed having everyone nearby. During a disaster, there is something inexplicably comforting about being able to share in the company of another human being. There is yet an even more inexplicable comfort to experience when the music returns.

by Georgiana (Jana) Llaneza

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David Kanzler – Elmendorf AFB

Elmendorf Air Force Base, adjacent to Anchorage, is the largest Air Force installation in Alaska and home of the Headquarters, Alaskan Command.

I was 4 years old and living in the Cherry Hill area of Elmendorf Air Force Base. My father was away on a mission leaving my mother and their 5 children “home alone.” I was coming up the basement stairs when the quake hit and I remember falling down the stairs. The shaking was unbelievably violent but I also remember the sound of the quake. The noise the earthquake made is rarely mentioned, but I can vividly remember the loud rumble which sounded like a freight train at high speed. In fact I thought the cause of it all was a freight train coming out of the ground from below the apartment.

The kitchen was a mess with all of the jars of food and condiments broken on the floor. All of my brothers’ model airplanes had come down from their perches as well as books, figurines, etc. My brothers’ school, Government Hill Elementary was destroyed, but as noted was closed that day for Good Friday.

With no electricity or heat, that night we gathered with other families on our living room floor and slept in sleeping bags. It was a great adventure for a 4 year old, but tremors and fires in the fuel storage area nearby (above ground due to the permafrost – since buried) kept the adults worried for days.

I can still remember my friend Mary Jo and me pushing on the side of the apartment building later that summer and trying to get the building shaking again!

Patrick M. Keulen – Fort Richardson

Well I remember it like it was yesterday. My dad was stationed at Fort Richardson. My dad, mom and two sisters were all sitting down to a Good Friday dinner a little after 5:00 p.m. Back then my mom would set the table with plates, cups and saucers and I remember hearing the cups start to make a tinkling sound and saw a really curious look on my mom’s face when all of a sudden it hit.

It was such a furious force not shaking but more of a rolling movement. I looked up to see the kitchen cabinet doors swing open and all the dishes falling out breaking on the floor and then saw our huge china hutch fall over. My dad and I started walking around the house, why I really don’t know, we were all in shock. My dad face was white as a ghost and his eyes were bulged out. There was a roaring sound I can still hear.

My mother who was 8 1/2 months pregnant with my youngest sister was crying hysterically and curled up in the fetal position in the corner of our living room with my two sisters who were also crying. My mom was begging us all to come to her because if we were going to die we would all die together. My mother a devout catholic thought it was the end of the world. That was the most courageous thing I ever witnessed in my entire life. Our priest Father Van Dyke came to our house that night and stayed on his knees until the morning praying the rosary. We were out of power and all I could see were his lips moving by candlelight.

In the days that followed the tremors were scarier than the quake. They seemed more violent. We went downtown Anchorage and saw all the wreckage, it was unbelievable. Our babysitter’s boyfriend was killed when a huge cement block from the J.C. Penny’s building crushed him.

I loved Alaska and still do. Living in Fort Richardson was so much fun, the military made it a great place for kids. It was by far the best time of my life. I can remember ice skating in the middle of Ft Rich and sledding and snowman and the forests. I still can recall a day when me and my friends built a huge three ball snowman and watched it disappear during a snowstorm. I also remember getting into trouble when my friends and I all stayed out late playing not knowing what time it was until the M.P.’s came to find us. It was after midnight but still light outside.

We stayed another two years and then eventually settled in California! I really laugh when my friends get freaked out with the 3.5’s here.

I never get scared during an earthquake not after that Alaskan whopper.

Michael W. Houck – Fort Richardson

I was 7 years old and living at the Fort Richardson Army base when the earthquake occurred. My father was an Air Force pilot and went skiing with some friends for the day at Mt. Aleska. My mother was in Colorado visiting her mother who had a stroke. My two younger sisters and I were at home with a baby sitter when the earthquake hit. Everything started shaking; dishes flew out of the kitchen cabinets and furniture was moving around the room. We had a large glass ball used to hold up fishing nets, displayed on our dining room table. It was shaking and moving towards the edge of the table. I went over and held it on the table to keep it from falling off. Our baby sitter held our china cabinet and kept it from falling over. It was the only china cabinet in the housing complex where we lived that did not fall over. By the time the earthquake ended all the furniture in our home was moved around the room or tipped over.

My dad said he was driving back from skiing and the road in front of him was waving like a flag and the telephone poles along the side of the road were whipping back and forth. He stopped the car until the earthquake stopped. When it was over he continued driving home and stopped at a liquor store along the way. He and his friends were the first ones in the store after the quake. The female clerk was in a mild state of shock and all the bottles of booze were broken on the floor. My dad said he had to wade through two inches of liquor to get to the beer coolers; he grabbed a six pack of canned beer and the clerk said he could have it.

We did not have telephone, water, and electric service for weeks. My mother had no way of knowing we were OK. The fire department came up the street with a water truck to deliver water. My dad cooked on the BBQ. I was not scared during the big earthquake but was frighten during the larger aftershocks. My mom made it home about a week after Easter; I had saved a big chocolate bunny that I got from the Easter Bunny, for her to see.

Janet Hill Irwin – Elemendorf

I too lived in Alaska on March 27th, 1964. My father was stationed at Elemendorf and we lived on Beech Street across from the Aurora Elementary school. My mother and my two brothers and my sister and I were all home and my father was on the way home in a car. When the quake started the dog had been uncomfortable for a few minutes. We tried to leave through the front door and it got stuck in the door jamb so we lay down on the floor and said probably three decats of the rosary while the floor rose and dropped and the noise was deafening.

After it was over my mother sent me down the street with a Valium for her friend that worked at the little corner store near our house. She had a feeling that the woman was going to need one. I was in 6th grade and terrified to have been sent out and about and I was sure it was not the last of the shaking. The one vivid thing that will never leave my memory was the smell. It was as if the entire planet burped and the smell was one of dirt and natural gas and oil and other unidentifiable odors. I’ve smelled things similar in my garden after tilling but not as pungent as 1964.

When my father got home from work we were already putting the contents of the cabinets that were now on the floor in boxes for the trash and my father began putting the things from the fridge out in the snow bank to keep the fresh.

We were leaving Alaska in less than a month and some of my mother’s treasures were in boxes already. The dishes in the dish washer were untouched. The person who was supposed to empty it that day didn’t get yelled at for neglecting their chores. We had visitors that evening. Families whose husbands worked with him came for the overnight as the men headed back to the F102 hangers. I slept with a three or four year old little girl in my lap that night while sitting on the couch. I bolted out the door several times with that child as I vowed I’d not be caught indoors again during an aftershock.

We all did wonder if the base pool cracked and whether the water drained out or not. My sister and I roamed before we left in some off limits area…we did it all the time…we took the drainage ditch between our housing and Cherry Hill and went to see if we could see large cracks in the planet and we did. There were boards and duct tape across the halls where the floors had cracked in school. We were not too happy to have to cross them on the way to music class.

My younger brother was supposed to make his first Communion that Saturday at the larger Chapel near the base theater but due to some damage we had to go the smaller chapel across the base and they made their first Communion on Easter Sunday and while the class of communicants were dressed in their blue suits and white dresses the rest of us wore whatever we wore. Church clothing wasn’t exactly the order of the day.

Three years ago I went back to Alaska with my husband for our 30th anniversary. I didn’t get to Anchorage but we will next time. I can tell you that as I boarded the first plane I had tears in my eyes. I remembered that fateful day and I also remembered those houses in Turnigan that slid to the sea and the demolished school on Government Hill that I passed to go and get my hair cut off base.

I’m sure that I will not be the only one sitting quietly at the appointed hour next week on the 45 anniversary an it being a Friday will make it to the day. I’ll probably play a CD I have with the Alaska state song on it and sing along and remember being young and facing death and cheating it.

Janet Hill…….now Irwin

Chris Turner – Anchorage

My mother & I (who had been in the US since 1959) were living with my sister & brother-in-law in Air Force Housing in Artic Boulevard, Anchorage. I was 18 and a senior at West Anchorage High School & I had just returned from a Rotary meeting for foreign students. I remember sitting with my nephew who was watching a television programme and my mother who was cooking the evening meal popped her head in and asked my nephew to stop banging his feet on the floor, then realising that the noise was something else more serious !! It was an earthquake!

We didn’t know quite where to go but thought it might be advisable to stay inside and we all decided the best place was under the large dining table!

I remember looking out of the window at the small snow covered conifer trees that were whipping back & forth. There was a display cabinet in the dining area with many ornaments and the doors were flung open and lots of these ornaments were sent crashing to the floor. The evening meal (a stew) meanwhile was being bounced up & down on the stove and the contents of the saucepan were being deposited all over the kitchen. This was all accompanied by the violent shaking & loud rumbling noises and I think we all wondered whether we would survive. I suppose, in retrospect, the houses being made of wood allowed them to flex without breaking up.

It was a very frightening 3 minutes or so and when it was over we wondered where my brother-in-law had got to as he was (I believe) returning from Elmendorf Air Force base. He did eventually arrive home safely but told us that he was driving at the time of the quake & thought the car had got a flat tyre! He stopped and part of the road was breaking up in front of him.

There was a block of flats on the hill above us, which suffered quite a bit of damage and I have some pictures that I took later on of the area and Anchorage Main Street parts of which had collapsed down to the upper floors of the stores.

Because of the potential risk of a tidal wave (we were near Cook Inlet) we were evacuated to the Air Force base for a night or two & I remember staff at the base clearing up the broken spirit bottles. All were wearing masks because, I assume, the mixture of vapour would have been very overpowering.

As there were many smaller aftershocks occurring throughout the night it was terribly difficult to sleep but we counted ourselves lucky to have escaped unscathed.

After graduating I returned to the UK in July 1964 and I am now retired but I will never forget the experience. In fact I went to see the film ‘earthquake’ at the cinema here many years ago and the sound effects were quite unnerving and realistic taking me right back to that day on March 27th 1964 at 5:36 pm.

William J. Ellis – Anchorage

I’ve just discovered your Great Alaskan earthquake web site and have a personal link to this event – not a recollection, but more of a question. Also, I Googled to see what might be online because I’m thinking of writing a story about the natural disaster story; it has been significant to me since high school; I was growing up when it happened and had been in the general area with my father one year earlier.

Anyway, my aunt, uncle, and cousin lived in Anchorage at the time about one block from the fissure that toppled Penney’s. She wrote dad about her experiences – she was also a favorite aunt of mine and accounts of her travel and documentary influenced my life then and to this day. All three have since deceased. Their daughter survives and I’m not sure I should share their name. My aunt did not run into the street with the others – something about saving dishes and grabbing a mirror in the bedroom to save it, leading her to throw herself on the bed with it and zang-zang-zang wildly around the room. Not much left of the nervous system for a few years, either.

According to her account, while she lay on the bed my uncle and cousin then fought their way to the Anchorage power source, where they shut down the city’s power supply to save further destruction. Gas lines had erupted, power lines were down, and who knows what explosions were possible. I’d like to know more about the extinguishing of the power supply. Anchorage was a 2nd or 3rd career for them so they were semi-retired, older, and there may be younger folks working for the city administration at the time who would still be around. Do you have any suggestions? Meantime, I will start the story with only my vivid memories and compiling other’s recollections, put it online, and watch it grow. Thank you! Warmly, C…

I was a senior at West Anchorage high school when this happened. We were out of school due to Good Friday and that saved a lot of lives. When it hit, we were at Gamble and North lights having just left the downtown area. The car felt like a rolling and rocking sensation. We watched power lines hitting each other and also a gas station on the corner lost its large glass window causing oil cans running all over the street. We had problems getting home as we lived in the Sand lake area and bridges were all damaged. What a mess inside our house. What a terrible night it was aftershocks no electricity, we rescued a lady next door with small children, her husband out in the bush. The next day we assessed the house and found minor damage. Our school was destroyed. We ended up going to our rival school East Anchorage and had to go split days. We graduated that year due to both gyms being damaged out of an Air Force Hanger. What a terrible ordeal, and I know every once in a while I will think about it and realize just what a piece of history that we all lived through.