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These are transcripts of letters to family that my grandmother's cousin Zillah wrote about the massive Anchorage earthquake of 1964. I typed them for an acquaintance in Alaska and wanted to share them here in case anyone is interested.
There are three main letters and I have typed them how they were written. I have a copy of the Anchorage Daily Times from April 14, 1964 that details the entire experience, along with photographs, and will try to have this scanned whenever possible
March 28, 1964
Dear Bernie & Harry,
Don't know how soon you receive this but want you to know we are well and in good shape. We were so very fortunate - but God what an experience! I don't think I'll ever be the same again. My legs still feel like rubber and my stomach does flip flops at every tremor. We are still getting tremors but not very severe.
It's impossible at this time to know what the damage has really been, as people are asked to stay out of the downtown area - actually off the streets completely. Apparently the main damage hit the downtown area. The Civil Defense radio station & 2 or 3 local stations are broadcasting but not giving damage reports.
As I said, we are very fortunate - our home is intact and at present we have heat and electric. However we do not have water. We have some in pans (just about every pan we have) but I imagine there are broken water mains all over. We have NO broken windows or cracked walls. We were driving home, turning onto 9th Ave. from A or B Street, when the quake hit. The way the car shook we thought we were losing a wheel so stopped the car. We realized then of course what was happening. I realized it was a severe one but didn't think about the ground splitting open. Tracy yelled for me to get out of the car (I found out later the ground under the center of the car kept opening and closing).
It was impossible to stand - I stepped out of the car and fell on my behind & so stayed that way. As soon as it stopped shaking we rushed home. The worst damage we saw was a new apartment house at 9th & L St. (just about ready for people to move in) completely leveled to the ground. I understand the J.C. Penny store fell apart. A quick estimate last night late, was that between Cordova & L Streets up to about 9th - there was 50% damage. L Street (the road itself I think) was estimated at 90% damage.
I walked in the house and wanted to cry! Everything (except the wall clock) was on the floor - broken glass all over. Kitchen cabinets had opened & jars, canned goods, dishes, and glasses were scattered all over the floor (only one piece of my corning ware broke - the small fry pan). Actually it wasn't as bad as it looked. Very little broken considering. The water splashed out of the toilet and was all over the floor. Both doors in my sewing room jammed together and stuff all over the floor. The TV was on the floor (antenna's broken and a couple of small pieces out of the plastic top), top shelf of the bookcase came off, and books all over. The dresser in the bedroom fell over. All but my sewing room is straightened up, but not cleaned.
About 7:30pm (the quake hit about 5:40pm) we were told to evacuate as a tidal wave was on its way. We threw clothes and food, candles and the Coleman stove in the car. About then I was near hysteria and shaking so I could hardly stand or hold anything. Turned the car radio on and they said the tidal wave was just a rumor at that time.
So - we sat in the car for a while then left everything in it and went back in the house. There was a tidal wave, but it did not hit our area. It hit Seward, Seldovia, and Kodiak.
One of the Alaska Airlines employees - Pete - was caught in the downtown area. The street where he parked his car shifted and his car is sitting on a small island of road. So - he walked to our house - arriving about 6:45pm and spent the night here. I managed about 3 hours sleep - interrupted a couple of times by a tremor. Tracy and I put sleeping bags on the living room floor and laid down there. I was afraid to stay in the bedroom for fear of another severe quake and the door getting jammed shut.
We did leave the house this morning as they asked all Alaskan Airlines personnel to call. Last night's flight from Fairbanks was coming in about 10:00am and so the 3 of us drove to the airport. There were some cracks in the road but except for broken store windows not too much damage. (The inside of the stores are a mess - especially grocery, drug, and liquor stores). We didn't go into or too near the terminal. The control tower (7 stories high) was flat on the ground. (I understand 2 of the men were killed). The interior walls of the terminal collapsed and everything slid and fell and is generally a mess. Luckily our flight to Fairbanks and Seattle got off the ground before the quake hit.
The 1200L Apt. building near us is a mess. Neighbors who were home said if the quake had lasted any longer it would have fallen. As it is - it is cracked from top to bottom and will have to be torn down.
I don't know when I will back to work. It depends on when they let people into that part of town. Tracy told them at the airport to call him when they need him but not tonight as he doesn't want to leave me alone (and I wouldn't stay alone).
Will write more details when we know them. Apparently the mail is going out okay so later today or tomorrow will get this to a nearby box for pickup. Try not to worry about us. We are fine and apparently will have only minor tremors for a day or so while things resettle. I only hope what news you received on radio or TV was not exaggerated too much to worry you too much.
Pass the word to everyone that we are fine and try not to worry.
Love from us both,
March 30, 1964
Dear Muriel -
Your telegram dated March 28 at 8:31am was received 9:30am today. I did not attempt wiring you as telephones are overtaxed and last I heard all telegrams had to be sent in person which necessitated driving thru part of the downtown area. Besides, Sat. afternoon I mailed Bernie & Harry (and Tracy's mother) a letter advising that we were well. Also - our Sales Manager from Seattle is in town and going back to Seattle today - I asked him to phone (collect) Bernie & Tracy's mother. I am sure Bernie must have received her letter by now.
I am sure the reports you've received have been VERY exaggerated. But - make no mistake - this has indeed been a disaster! Whether Anchorage will EVER recover is questionable.
Tracy and I spent from 8pm of the 29th till 9:15am today at the airport working. There wasn't a heck of a lot to do, but it was good to have a little something to do and be around other people. A short while ago our water was turn on, which to us is amazing after so short a time. We had heat and electricity almost constantly. Typhoid shots are required as all water is assumed to be contaminated. However they have been out of serum for about 24 hours.
The number of dead released is being kept to a bare minimum. We KNOW there have been many, many more. This has probably been held back to keep down panic.
I can look out my window and except for the 12 story apt. building about 2 blocks away, can see no damage. However about 5 blocks away is terrible destruction. I knew the main west coast fault ran along the Alaska gulf and down the Aleutian Chain. Now we know EXACTLY where in Anchorage it is.
Some good friends of mine (3 families with 2 to 4 children each) lost their homes and everything in them. As far as I have been able to find out they all escaped with their lives.
I had a chance this morning to go into the downtown area (the hotel in particular) but had no desire to go. What I have seen of the damage makes me feel SICK - actually. I have looked at roads and lots that have broken away from surrounding areas 30 feet wide and BLOCKS long! Houses and cars are tipped half on and half off the edges - others have dropped 15 to 20 feet below the normal level. You can look down the crevasse and not see the bottom. You look at it but the mind can't seem to accept it.
Food is NOT a problem! They figure we have a 30 day normal supply and flights have been continuing on schedule to and from Seattle.
It was just announced typhoid shots are again being given after 1:30pm so will get ours. Also announced 3 blocks of 4th Ave (the main street) dropped 30 feet.
J.C. Penny's 1 yr. old lovely store collapsed, along with others. I heard that both high schools have been condemned (this is not true - only West High). I know our beautiful, expensive West High is a shambles.
My boss - Brad - lives across the street (he was in Juneau at the State Legislature but flew to Anchorage with the governor and his inspection party Sat. They convene in Juneau again on Friday). His carport collapsed crushing both his Thunderbird and Corvair. They are now about 3 ft. high.
The after tremors have been less and less severe and farther apart - thank God. Everyone is naturally jumpy - feeling or imagining that the ground is shaking.
Friday night was the most terrifying I have ever experienced but we were so very, very lucky. Crockery was broken and tiny glass pieces all over - but not a crack in the house, garage or basement and all windows intact. All Friday night and most of Sat. I was so near hysteria. I can't imagine how I controlled myself. And at every tremor I thought I was going to be sick to my stomach. When we were told to evacuate the house that a tidal wave was on its way - I shook so badly I had trouble picking up things to put in the car to take with us. We did not leave and tidal action did not come up Cook Inlet. I pray to God I never have to go thru this again. I have lost most of my appetite. I get feeling hungry but take a few bites of food and can't swallow anymore. This has gone on since the quake Friday. I've been going on cigarettes. My legs have finally lost their rubbery feeling.
It is fantastic how fast many businesses got going again! And the people have opened their homes to strangers who lost their homes or had no heat.
Well, I have been up since 5:30am the 29th and am about to unwind. Now that we have water, tomorrow I'll have to get busy and start cleaning house. I picked up, but without water it's hard to clean.
Don't worry about us. We have been so very fortunate and are all well off. We have our lives, our home, and our jobs. Many, many people lost at least 2 of these things.
Please pass the news to ALL. I will forward our local newspapers and when I - and everything else - settles down to a routine I will write more to everyone. It's still upsetting to think of the last few days and write of our personal experience, as well as the horrible devastation.
Love from us both,
Zillah & Tracy
Am late getting this mailed. We are back at work in the downtown area. I've taken the direct route from home to the hotel and haven't looked around town. Man, many businesses are back in operation. - More later.
April 8, 1964
Will try to get a few lines typed while I have a few minutes. Your letters have all been received and glad you have gotten ours. We are well and back working about normal hours. I am even regaining my sense of balance which had almost completely deserted me.
Our second big jolt last Friday shook everyone up again - and we in the hotel made a mad dash for the street and intersection away from the building. There was a bit of minor damage from that one, but not very much.
Bernie - did Bob Gieradorf call you collect? I had told him to, but wonder if he did or not. If so will send you money for the call. Bob is in Anchorage today and I thanked him for calling you. First chance I have will write Miss Lippman and thank her for all her assistance. I knew you would all be just frantic with the reports I could imagine going out.
Muriel - we thank you for the offer of your house, but really we don't need it. Our house has a tiny crack in the hardwood floor in the hall - about 3 inches, and some subflooring pulled apart, but not enough to worry about and not dangerous. There are no real cracks in the house, and Tracy seems sure it is structurally sound.
I am regaining my appetite - but not the weight yet - thank goodness. Will try and find another street map and mark the areas that were damaged and trace the line of the fault area. Within a few days I will send some newspaper accounts. The other day Tracy and I walked around town viewing some of the badly damaged areas - and it is still hard to realize. As I have repeatedly been saying - we were very, very fortunate. Some people had some horrible experiences. I was thinking last night I doubt if I will ever be able to be at ease on a boat anymore - the rocking motion will probably get to me. There are many of us who will never be quite the same again. But, there is such a warm feeling between people. When someone says, "Hello - how are you?" they mean it sincerely. The first few days afterward when I saw people I hadn't seen in days or weeks - they would hug me with joy, they were so glad to know we were alright. It won't last - but I don't think we will ever forget this kinship which sprung up.
Bernie - please send me a copy of the write up in the paper. I am trying to write an account of my personal experience, but it is hard going. As I go back in my mind to the events I still feel things rocking. But, will get it done this week and mail it to you.
Will try and write more today or tomorrow, but this will be it for now. Bob Gierdorf should be in any minute and we have lots of things to go over.
Try not to worry about us now - we are fine. I think perhaps all of you suffered more not knowing just what the situation was - and simply having to wait for news.
Love from both of us to all of you,
Zillah and Tracy.
Thanks for taking the time to do this!!! I had read some similar scenarios from a quake reunion website and did not keep it unfortunately, but this was from a family in a basement apartment somewhere and the father, husband worked at the hospital...also talked of the streets literally opening up..., but generally had the same type of damage, except I think lost power... once again, thank you
Thank you for posting these. I have a book titled The Day the Trees Touched the Ground that includes stories from many residents as they each experienced the quake. Makes one feel rather small in the grand scheme of things.
Ahh yes: the '64 quake! I was a 16-yr old high-schooler living in Seward at the time. How well I remember our family running quickly outdoors, then hanging onto the bed of the pickup truck just to stay standing. All four tires of the truck bounced up and down madly off the ground, with what I'd estimate was at least 6". And all the stones and pebbles on the ground....you should have seen them bounce around! Skittering all over the place...thousands of them all at once. We watched in amazement as all the spruce trees surrounding our yard swayed to and fro in complete unison, their tops bending back and forth together like giant fishing rods with "fish on". There was a loud rumbling sound everywhere, and the quake seemed to go on and on for like forever...
I also remember the complete and total SILENCE before the quake. No sounds in the air. Just a wierd total stillness. No animals, no birds, no anything...nothing was moving about or stirring. It's like the birds and animals just knew somehow...
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