It was 50 years ago today, that the south-central portion of the state of Alaska and beyond, fell victim to the largest recorded earthquake on the continent of North America. That massive earthquake, lasting 240 seconds, took nine lives, the quake caused a series of tsunamis that took the lives of another 130 people.
Also dubbed the Good Friday earthquake as it had struck on Good Friday, the massive megathrust earthquake ripped through the region at 5:36 pm that spring evening in 1964. Originating near College Fjord, the Pacific and North American plates, which extends throughout the west coast of the U.S. from Baja California to Japan, shifted in a tremendous rupture. 40 miles west of Valdez, the built-up tension stored along the northern portion of the fault was released as friction was overcome by pressure unleashing devastation on a grand scale from the release 14 miles beneath the surface.
The quake caused major destruction in the city of Anchorage, it produced extensive earthquake liquifaction throughout the city’s downtown district located approximately 75 miles to the northwest of the epicenter. As the quake shook, earth flowed like oozing mud, causing landslides in Turnagain, Ship Creek, and Government Hill. In the Turnagain neighborhood along Knik Arm, 75 homes were destroyed as the earth beneath them broke loose and flowed toward the inlet.
On Government Hill, the school there was ripped in two as ground gave way.
At the Anchorage International Airport, the 68-foot concrete control tower collapsed to the ground. One person was killed in that incident.
At Ship Creek, in downtown Anchorage, streets collapsed along with buildings as that part of the city sunk 11 feet lower. In Spenard anything taller than a single story was destroyed.
To the south of the city, the quake caused the ground to subside in the communities of Girdwood and Portage, forcing their abandonment as the sea came back to claim the real estate there. Girdwood was moved inland after the earthquake, Portage would never be rebuilt.
Beneath the sea, from Ninchinbrook Island to the Trinity Islands, the ocean bottom rose as much as 50 feet, shifting under the released tension. It was this massive release that would unleash the large portion of the devastation in the form of a gigantic tsunami that laid waste to Valdez, Seward, Kodiak and numerous other communities.
In Whittier, the Tsunami struck almost immediately after the earthquake. The railroad depot there was destroyed, as were two sawmills. Fire struck there as well, after the Union Oil tank farm ignited. 13 people were killed in Whittier.
The small, peaceful community of Chenega was taken by surprise that Good Friday afternoon, first with the violent shaking, then by a series of two waves that rushed over the small community, taking the entirety of the town into the sea. All that was left after the massive tsunami, that reached the height of over 70 feet high, was the community’s school on the hill. The tsunami that swept through Chenega snuffed out the lives of 26 individuals.
In Old Valdez, the earthquake liquified the sediment under the community and caused a massive amount of the delta to slump into Port Valdez, instantly prompting the port facilities to disappear into the sea. Even before the shaking stopped, a local tsunami that was generated by the slump swept through the community, the 30-40 foot wave all but destroyed the waterfront. But, the devastation there wasn’t finished yet. The quake had caused Union Oil fuel tanks to rupture. The ensuing spill ignited and flames took what remained of the waterfront. 32 people, most of them children perished that day fifty years ago. The community was later moved to another location northwest of the old site.
12 people died in the community of Seward. Like Valdez, the waterfront in Seward collapsed under the massive shaking. 3/4 of a mile of the waterfront disappeared into Resurrection Bay. The earthquake also ruptured tanks at the tank farm igniting a fire that was spread as the local tsunami swept in from the sea. The 30-foot wave spread the burning oil inland to the Texaco Petroleum tank farm, setting that facility ablaze as well. But, nature wasn’t finished. Twenty minutes after the local tsunami, the larger, widespread tsunami struck. That 40-foot wave took the already burning oil and further spread it into the town, destroying a large section of the community.
Kodiak Island, across Shelikof Strait from mainland Alaska, suffered little damage from the 9.2 magnitude quake, only to be devastated by the resulting tsunamis. A series of four ever-increasing waves covered the downtown area of Kodiak, the island’s largest community. 35-foot-high wave of rushing water tossed boats into the downtown area. Residents of the community, after taking to higher ground, watched as the massive rush of water took boats, airplanes, and automobiles out the channel and into the sea.
The resulting tsunami on Kodiak Island also destroyed the villages of Kaguyak, Old Harbor and Afognak. It was a radio operator in Kaguyak that alerted the communities of Kodiak of the coming tsunami as it struck there. That person is credited with saving the lives of countless individuals on the island with the warning. 15 people in the Kodiak area were killed. Six of them, fishermen who rushed to the harbor to save their boats.
The earthquake swayed buildings as far away as Seattle. The resulting tsunami reached out and took the lives of 14 people on Vancouver Islaand, in Depoe, Oregon and Cresent City, California. Tsunamis also struck Hawaii and Japan.
The entire planet vibrated for weeks as the seismic waves continued to circle the earth.