Those near epicenter felt the power

Mentasta Lake saw massive quake damage

Posted: Tuesday, November 12, 2002

MENTASTA LAKE - When the earthquake struck this rural community southwest of Tok in Interior Alaska, 20-foot-tall spruce trees whipped back and forth, slapping the ground on each side like windshield wiper blades.

Tree trunks split open. Mountains slumped. Roads buckled and cracks yawned in the earth. Houses rocked and jumped, shattering dishes and toppling TVs. Tap water turned brown, sewer lines broke, oil tanks tuned on their sides.

"It was like riding a boat on the roughest sea," said Angela Pete, at home with her seven children and niece.

But when one of the most powerful quakes ever recorded in the United States eased a few minutes later, no one had been killed and few were hurt. The most serious injury came when Mentasta elder Cherry Nicolai fell on the ice and broke an arm as she fled her home, tribal officials said.

"We believe in God. We believe in Jesus," said Kathryn Martin, the Mentasta Lake tribal administrator. "We just know that God was watching over us here."

The Slana-Mentasta Lake region, about 250 miles northeast of Anchorage, is a country of log cabins hunkered deep in spruce forest, bounded by the snow-covered foothills of the Alaska Range.

For days after Nov. 3's 7.9 earthquake ruptured the Denali fault, shocks continued to jolt residents of the area. People waded into homes and businesses awash in dishes, bottles, cans, books and knickknacks. Crews began repairing a highway rumpled with crevices up to 8 feet deep.

Representatives from state and federal agencies inspected homes and buildings. The American Red Cross sent teams to several communities, and other agencies delivered donated food, clothing and building supplies.

The quake hit at 1:12 p.m. Nov. 3 at a depth of about three miles. During the next 80 seconds, the new rupture "unzipped" the Denali fault through nearly 150 miles of the Alaska Range, said state seismologist Roger Hansen.

People in 143 North American ZIP codes - as far away as Louisiana, New York and California - reported feeling the motion. The energy released made it the largest quake recorded so far in the world in 2002.

It sliced right through Mentasta.

At the Mentasta Lodge, located on the fault, owner Linda Lester was in the kitchen when an employee shouted "Earthquake!" Lester bolted outside and immediately lost her footing on a glaze left by freezing rain.

Crouched on bare hands and bruised knees, she watched cracks rupture the parking lot, producing ridges in the chip-seal that looked like the traces of giant gophers. Chunks rose up, the highway wrenched away from the driveway, a log guest cabin tilted over backward.

From inside the lodge came the clamor of dumping freezers and spilling shelves. An ATM leapt from its bolts. Bottles of syrup, sauce and beer shattered, covering surfaces with sticky, smelly goo. Sewer and water lines snapped in the basement. Walls bulged, floors heaved, Sheetrock cracked.

But Lester's attention was drawn to her Chevy van. It was prancing toward her on successive jolts.

"I thought, 'Oh my god, I'm going to get run over by my own van,' " she said.

A few miles to the northwest along Mentasta Lake, Benny Funk, 61, and his dog, Pal, burst from his log home. He fell to the icy ground and watched as an avalanche roared down a mountain and his porch shifted and buckled.

But then Funk saw something he'd never imagined - a big wave surging from the benign lake he had known all his life.

"It looked like a tsunami wave came up into the yard," he said. "It washed some huge ice chucks up in the yard."

Some of the worst cracks sheared through the ground beneath the home of the Pete family. David Pete was outdoors.

"All of a sudden, I got shocked to the ground, and all I could see was trees touching the ground like windshield blades swishing back and forth," Pete said "I've never seen such great power."

As the land under his house sank, his driveway buckled. A hole wrenched open in the forest floor, exposing roots and boulders as a spruce tree ripped up the middle like a twig twisted too far. As the shaking eased, he ran inside the family's small cabin.

In the bedroom, 13-year-old Savannah and 12-year-old Sarah had gathered the other children and had them sitting quietly on the bed. They were studying earthquakes at the Mentasta School and knew what they should do.

"It was really scary," Sarah said. "Every time there was an aftershock, we all piled on the bed."

In an hour, the family caught a ride into the village and joined others at the community hall.

Angela Pete said she's watched her children closely since the quake. Some of her older children have been waking up at night.

"I was crying this morning - it all got to me this morning," she said. "There's little possibility of going back to the house. I really don't know what we're going to do."

On the Web: U.S. Earthquake Center at earthquake.usgs.gov.



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