Good Friday quake: 'One long terrible night'

Juneau residents remember the quake that shook the state

Posted: Friday, April 09, 2004

When Laury Scandling was 10 years old and living in Anchorage in 1964, schools had the day off for Good Friday, the Friday before Easter. That's why Scandling was at a friend's house and not in school when the second-largest earthquake ever recorded in the world struck Alaska on March 27.

Forty years later, Scandling remembers the earthquake as the most terrifying five minutes of her life.

"I can still picture the cupboard doors banging open-close, open-close, repeatedly. Cans flying all over the place - it was like a poltergeist had taken control," said Scandling, who now is a teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School. She still suffers from moments of anxiety when a sound or a feeling - such as that of a large truck passing by her house - reminds her of the experience.

The Good Friday earthquake measured 8.6 on the Richter scale and was later revised to a 9.2. The tsunamis it created killed 131 people in Alaska and as far south as Crescent City, California. In Valdez, 32 people died in a tsunami wave. The village of Chenega lost 23 people in a huge wave.

In Kodiak, Juneau resident Sam Wanamaker spent the night of March 27 on the crab boat that he was fishing from at the time.

When the earthquake hit, old-timers in Kodiak started heading up to the hills immediately, said Wanamaker, who was 37-years-old at the time.

But for the crab fishermen, the boat was their home and their ticket back to Seattle. So Wanamaker and 12 others climbed aboard and tried to motor out of Kodiak Harbor.

"When the water came in there (the harbor) it made a big whirlpool," Wanamaker said.

The crew spent the night ramming the boat against the breakwater, so when the tsunamis broke on the outside they cascaded like a waterfall over the boat, Wanamaker said.

When the boat got out of the harbor, the crew was disoriented and landed the boat on a reef. Eventually, another tsunami floated the boat off of the reef and landed it back in the harbor.

"It was just one long, terrible night," Wanamaker said.

Judge Tom Stewart, a lifelong Alaskan who has spent most of his life in Juneau, lived with his family in Anchorage when the earthquake struck.

"It was a vividly moving experience, a shaking experience," Stewart remembered.

He was working as the administrative director of courts for Alaska, and on that Friday evening he was at his boss's house with his 6-year-old daughter, taking care of the pets.

"It felt as if the earth was going to come apart. It was that violent," Stewart said.

With one hand on a sink and the other holding his daughter, Stewart watched out the kitchen window as concrete blocks "just popped out" of the side of a nearby apartment building, he said.

After the quake, Stewart ventured to his wife's bookstore, which was located near the center of the quake. He found that though the first 20 feet of the store looked OK, the back 80 feet had dropped about 20 feet into the ground. Half of the books in the store were destroyed.

Unfortunately, few people in Anchorage had thought to buy earthquake insurance, or even knew it existed.

"It took me 15 years to pay off that debt," Stewart said.

Juneau felt minor effects of the quake but suffered little damage. On March 28, 1964, the Alaska Empire reported that a float plane in North Douglas owned by Kenny Loken had been flipped over, and the runway at the airport suffered from some cracks.

On March 28, Gov. Bill Egan and 86 others, including state representatives and health and safety officials, flew to Anchorage to survey the damage. By Tuesday, March 31, the Juneau Chamber of Commerce had established the Rebuild Alaska Committee of Greater Juneau. The committee worked with the Salvation Army to provide bedding and baby food to Anchorage.

Dean Williams, a longtime Juneau resident, worked with other ham radio enthusiasts to establish contact with Anchorage, which had lost telephone communications.

"Pretty soon we had so many hams that wanted to get in on the action that some of us had to just monitor and jump in when needed," Williams said.

Helping with communications was one of several ways Juneau residents reached out to fellow Alaskans, Williams said.

"People sent a lot of good will and were willing to help," he said. "They always do here in Juneau."

• Christine Schmid can be reached at

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