John & Pat Steinke

In March, 1964, we were an Army family of four, and a longhaired dachshund, living at Fort Richardson. Dad was the DEW Line Communications Director and worked over at Elmendorf Air Force Base. I was thirteen. My little brother was almost three. When “The earthquake” hit, my mother was downstairs. Dad was in the kitchen, fixing his Friday night special – spaghetti. My brother and I were upstairs, on the bed in our parent’s room, watching TV. It sounds kind of corny now, but it was a favorite show, “Fireball XL-5”. The Fireball had just begun its roll-out and was zooming down the track, about to reach the end and launch off on another adventure. When the booster rockets ignited, the picture flickered, and then (as the station lost power and went off the air) the screen went to black, with just a single white dot … a la “The Twilight Zone”.

Of the four of us, only three knew immediately what was happening. Mom and Dad, having lived in California and Japan realized that it was an earthquake, and a big one at that. My brother figured out that the, “Bad Fireball broke TV”. I was your standard, oblivious pre-teen. I didn’t have a clue. I just lay on the bed and went along for the ride as it flew around the room, slamming from one wall to another. I do remember looking out the window and seeing the ground rising and falling, like ocean waves, and thinking, “That doesn’t look right.”

When the shaking was over, Dad came flying up the stairs grabbed my brother and yelled at me to get out of the house. Just before we went out, we all stopped in the pantry to grab hats, coats, mittens and boots. A lot of food had fallen to the floor and broken open. A package of Lorna Doones was open, laying their golden goodness at our feet. Between my brother and the dog they were disappearing rapidly. When Dad reached down to pick them both up, someone sank teeth into his arm. To the day he died, he would always remark that, “That was the sweetest, most even-tempered dog in the world. She never bit anyone in her life!”

We lived at 524-C Beluga Avenue. Our building was a row unit, with eight apartments. The last two (apartments G and H) had been turned into a double apartment and were the residence of the Post Commanding General. I don’t recall his name, but his wife was really nice and would often invite us kids in for cookies. I remember their living room had a couple of big curio cabinets filled with china, crystal, ivory knick-knacks and other frou-frou stuff. The building acted like a whip during the earthquake, with Unit A serving as the handle. Damage to our apartments (A, B and C) was light, but the General and his wife lost everything.

Calgon & Sun Flower Star

John & Pat Steinke


Dorothy Armstrong – Anchorage


I was a Flight Attendant with The Flying Tiger Line, and we had just ‘dead headed’ (no passengers) into Anchorage to position for a flight the following day. Having arrived at the hotel shortly before, I had decided on a nap before going into the Red Ram restaurant for dinner. My roommate had asked to use my hair dryer, and I’d told her to help herself. As I was dozing off the shaking started. I thought it was my roommate, and that she was being very inconsiderate in shaking my bed like that. The hair dryer was on a partition that separated our beds, which were what I believe are called ‘day beds’. When the shaking didn’t stop, I sat up and looked around at my roommate, and saw the largest brown eyes I’ve ever seen…even since.

Being a California girl I recognized it was an earthquake, however being close to a SAC base another event did enter our minds! I made about 3 attempts to stand up, and was thrown back onto the bed, I finally gave up and I just shuffled the bed back against the wall each time it rolled into the room. I also moved as far away from the large plate glass window as I could get.

From this position I watched in amazement. The building was a U shape, and the section across from us was rolling in 2 – 3 foot waves. The window glass was also rolling in waves, but in an opposite direction, the street light in the intersection visible from our room was the type that is suspended in the middle of the intersection (not recognizable in this day), and it was spinning wildly. The amazement was in nothing was breaking! I heard the TV in the room above crash, but ours just teetered back and forth, not falling.

When the shaking stopped I immediately went to the door, as I had heard the screams of 2 other members of my crew, and saw them safely huddled against the building. Before leaving the room, I drained all the water in the lines in the bathroom into containers, as I knew there would not be any water for awhile.

The restaurant had been vacated, the bartender handed me a bag of money as he was running out. I insisted he open the safe for me to put it away, and he then ran off to check his home and family. We were the only ones left in the hotel, so we gathered in the restaurant, and decided we might as well see what there was to eat, we did well as food it was in abundance at this point. We also found the beer still cold!

We then walked downtown a short distance, and it was only then the full realization of the extent of the damage hit us. The hotel had appeared undamaged (a crack in the lobby fireplace was the only damage). Native hospital was nearby, and we went there to see if they needed any volunteers. They asked us to stand by for a time, as they were trying to obtain permission to admit nonnatives. We waited a while, and were finally told the other hospital was able to handle all the injuries, so we went back to our empty hotel.

The aftershocks were the unnerving part. Even when I returned to San Francisco it was several days before I trusted myself driving, as the ground was still moving under me, and I had to continually be reassured it wasn’t another earthquake.

Tom Schworer

I flew that weekend as the Navigator with the Alaska Air National Guard. Starting with the second flight on Saturday the 28th I took pictures with a small 35 MM camera.

At 5:30 PM I was on the second floor of the National Bank of Alaska (I worked there as a banker). I received activation and reported to Kulis AFB (Anchorage Int’l) … from there we flew in a C-123J to Elmendorf where we picked up soldiers as no word was received of conditions down on the gulf. All electric navigation and radio was down with bad weather. No camera on the first flight.

Tom’s Photo

Tom Schworer
Costa Mesa

Merry-Rae Brook Dunn

I was twelve years old when I was in the Alaskan earthquake. I was with other Girl Scouts selling Girl Scout Cookies at a grocery store when the quake happened. I remembered the Easter Lilies on the top of the counters above us falling down on us, not a good sign. We clung to a floor to ceiling pole at the area we had been allocated to sell cookies. The sharp movement of the quake yanking us back and forth kept us from standing for very long.

I remember looking out into the parking lot of the store and seeing power poles swaying in the distance as I clung to that pole. The experience of the strong yanking is one that never leaves my memory after all these years. The smells of mustard and vinegar were pervasive throughout the store, and I will never forget that smell. All isles were too packed with goods to walk on. I remember people stumbling over the can goods frantic to get to the front of the store.

I was in the front of the store so I was able to get out easily with my friends. I remember my mother came for me. She was a nurse at the time and she knew she had to get back to work to help with the patients. My older brother was with his friends and we were to soon know the devastation he had witnessed. He had been jumping over crevasses as they opened and closed, turning the area he was visiting with his friends, into the worst damaged area of Turnigan. It felt like time had stopped, unable to process anything as my mind just could not take it all in.

My mother was able to get my brother and I home, we lived off a long road that ended on the Turnigan Arm, the side that was not near the water and thus not as damaged. Our home had not suffered any major damage, mostly food and the refrigerator contents on the floor, once again mustard smell, and a fine layer of toothpicks scattered all over the top of everything. My mother being a nurse and very organized got the place cleaned up, we checked the fireplace for damage and my bother built a fire. There were not lights or running water for the time being.

There was no shortage of aftershocks. As I was only twelve at the time and had not experience of earthquakes and the grownups around me were so preoccupied with basic survival they did not inform me that it was very common the experience aftershocks that would diminish over time. So as far as I could tell, I was sure the aftershock was going to last forever. I could also be that we were all in shock ourselves. My father was a radio and TV announcer at the time Nathan Brook, he worked at KENAI radio and TV. He worked in the downtown area of Anchorage, that area was quarantined due to so much damage.

He was stuck at work for a number of days but somehow he and my mother were able to communicate. He may have given her a message over the air as that was what the radio did at that time, was provide messaging and information to the area. My mother went into work that evening and my brother and I were left home alone in the dark. Sometime in the evening around nine o’clock there was a knock on outdoors telling us to evacuate as there was a Tsunami warning issued for our area and we were to head for high ground.

Our neighbors next to us had a large van and took my brother and me with them. Before we left we wrote a note for my parents telling where we had gone and that we had let our large Huskie off his lead as we could not take him with us. I was frightened again for my dog, and my whole family. I supposed I was in shock the whole day and months after before I felt that that experience diminished in my mind. The Tsunami did not hit Anchorage as it was predicted and we were allowed to go home. My mother was home when we came back and was glad that no further harm had come to anyone.

My dog had left and not come back, we found much later on that someone had taken him. He was a beautiful and friendly dog, he would howl at night like wolf longing for its pack mates as they were only a few blocks away. So my parents didn’t miss him as much as I did, and life moved on. I knew really horrible things had happened, I had school mates that had died when they fell in a cravas that opened up and then closed on them, I was unable to process everything, I wanted it all to go away and get back to my normal life.

I remember the weeks that followed, we used coffee cans for out toilet, my mother collected those cans and now we knew why. The National Guard was called in to protect property from looting and also had set up an over the ground water supply. The aluminum pipes would freeze, and then my father would put his coat over his bathrobe put his boots on to go and hack at the frozen water with an axe. He was not a frontier kind of guy. There were the honey bucket guys that came around to collect sewage.

We got our drinking water from a neighbors well, my brother and I would pull a snow sled to the well and fill up large Gerry cans and then take them home where mom would put Clorox in them. We were in the middle of spring break up before the water was turned back on and it made it harder to get the water with a sled. With no school for weeks my girlfriend and I would play endless games of cribbage. I remember those times fondly.

Finally school started, my school had some damage but was repaired in time. My brother went to West Anchorage High and they lost a whole top floor of their school so they went half days with East Anchorage High, their rival school for the rest of the year. My father came home after a few days, life eventually got back to normal. Later that summer we took a car trip “outside” traveling the yet unpaved Alkan Highway to Seattle for my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary.

The rest of the world thought we were all living it huts and scrounging for food and water, so my mom would take letters she had written to my grandparents and drag them through the mud, she had an occasional bout of whimsy in her otherwise business like demeanor. I remember that in some restaurant along the Alkan route that had a floor fan that was shaking the floor, we all got nervous, then looked at each other, and in that moment we knew that we were still in shock and would be for a very long time to come.

It would take years for me to stop reacting when someone would shake a chair I was sitting in or to not have flash backs of memory of the “big one” whenever there were any other earthquakes. I know live in Washington, in 2001 my mother passed away and brother was at my home north of Seattle, the area had an earthquake on the day he came in for the memorial service, we were north of the area and we still felt it, in that moment that we were feeling the waves of that earthquake we became those kids in Alaska on that Good Friday in 1964.

Merry-Rae (Brook) Dunn

Edward W. Jackson – Elmendorf

I was born June 1st, 1963, at Travis AFB. My father was transferred to Elmendorf AFB, where we lived for a time on base housing. Then my father rented a home nearby, where I and my parents lived. My father was a fighter pilot, relaxing in a break room at a hanger, when the shaking started. He and a buddy went to the doorway, in the nick of time. A huge floor to ceiling fridge fell over, just missing them both. Getting out of the hanger was hard to do, as they had to crawl out of it, to the outside. After the quake happened. One fighter plane that had come in that day, and was new, was nose into the ground. The shaking snapped the nose landing gear off. The huge hanger door was stuck where they were. For the whole buildings were warped. All the pilots were scrambled, and made ready to take off. At the time, pilots in those planes had the capability to engage Russia with a nuclear weapon that was launched from the plane. 45 minutes later, the men were told to stand down, that it was just an earthquake. My mother did not see my father for nine days, as those pilots were on alert at the base; in case there was an attack from Russia.

They say kids can’t remember anything when they are real young. I remember a bell on my toy train ringing out of the blue. I was sitting on the living room rug, with various toys, near a picture window. This train was meant for a child to sit on, and that bell rang and rang. I heard my mother screaming, and crying. She was in the kitchen, and she had one of those portable dishwashing machines that roll. Well, it went banging around, and ran over her foot to begin with. She hopped up on the counter, and that crazy machine was whipping around. I remember the blood from her cut big toe, and her crying, and later, the cold. We had lost our power. Lucky for us, neighbors took us in. Their apartment complex had lost its internal stairways, which had collapsed. People went up into their second floor apartments with ladders. This building built of concrete had to later torn down. But, being there that night, we had heat, but no water. I just remember the bell ringing, and the beautiful sun shining through that window, before the glass cracked, and my mother screaming.

Edward W. Jackson, of Missouri

Vern W. Payne – Elmendorf

I was 21 years old and stationed at Elmendorf AFB and I had just completed the first year of a two-year tour. The shock over the loss of President John F. Kennedy was just beginning to subside and things were headed back towards normal. The Beatles descended on the music scene with a rush and long mop-head haircuts were becoming the rage with all the teenagers. I had just returned from a shopping trip to JC Penney where I’d picked up some new clothes. I had a date scheduled and I had hurried to the SAC/RAF mess hall to wolf down some dinner before returning to my barracks to put on those new clothes and make an evening of it. I had just sat down to eat when I felt a rumble in the floor. I knew immediately what it was, having been through a series of earthquakes in Kern County in 1952. I told everybody not to worry because the disturbance would pass quickly. It didn’t pass quickly. The floor began to shake and pitch back and forth and after one violent upheaval, all the tables and chairs slid to one end of the mess hall and smashed against the wall. Time to get out.

The mess hall was full and 95% of the troops were trying to exit the building through the same doors they used to enter and the foot-traffic jam made escape all but impossible. I caught sight of the exit door by the serving line and noticed that almost nobody was going out that way. That route got me out of the building, down the steps and face-to-face with one of the most terrifying sights I’ve ever encountered. The ground was pitching and rolling like the ocean in a storm. Ice about two feet thick covered the ground and it was ripping like cloth every time the ground moved. I nearly got motion sickness standing on dry land which is a dubious claim to fame. I tried to get away from the mess hall building because it was slapping against a barracks and looked like it might come apart. Walking was impossible at best so I tried to steady myself by hanging on to an automobile door handle. I remember that vehicle to this day. It was a silver Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon. Hanging on to the door handle was a futile attempt because that station wagon was bouncing, at least two feet off the ground. Time to get away.

Power poles were wagging back and forth, transformers were falling to the ground and electrical lines were breaking all over the area. After what seemed like hours, the quake subsided and I made my way up the stairs to my room on the third floor. I remember the smell as I opened the door. Several brands of after-shave had toppled out of the medicine chest and had broken when they smashed against the concrete floor. The place had never smelled so good nor looked so bad.

Minutes turned to hours involved with cleanup and hauling out broken glass, mopping up the liquid mess and putting the room back in order. And during all this, there was our unit’s mission that had to be maintained. We were on the clock 24/7 and there was work to be done. I remember one man, a fellow named Don Jensen, from one of the southern California beach cities, made his way to our operational headquarters, set equipment back at vertical, cleaned the place up and continued his assignment – – – all by himself. He received a well-deserved award for that action.

Aftershocks during the next few weeks kept us all on edge and during the next year, I counted the days one at a time until I could get out of there. I think the happiest sight ever was Anchorage in my rear view mirror as I pulled out at one minute after midnight on March 15, 1965. It had nothing to do with the city or the people because everyone up there was great but the memory of that earthquake/tsunami stayed with me for years. Being an original member of the 8.7 (now 9.2) club is a moniker I wish I’d been able to do without.

Vern W. Payne
Bakersfield, California

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