March 27th marks the 50th anniversary of Alaska’s Good Friday Earthquake – the largest recorded in North America. Many Sitkans have stories from the epicenter.
Bob Allen is known around Southeast now for his family shipbuilding and cruise business, Allen Marine. But five decades ago, he was fishing south of Kodiak Island far from his family when disaster struck. Allen says when you can’t take care of your own, you take care of what you can.
Bob Allen was over 100 miles from home when a magnitude 9.2 earthquake rocked his boat. Of all days, this would be a tough one to be separated from his wife and kids.
Betty and the kids were in Kodiak. And I was on a 104 foot fishing boat. It was about 5 o’clock. Beautiful day. Flat calm, absolutely mirror calm. And the boat just started vibrating. It was just like a giant had a hold of that boat and it was just shaking it just – rattle rattle shake shake shake – terrible vibration.
The violent jostling had damaged the radio. All they could do was listen. Allen could hear what was happening in Kodiak and the report wasn’t good.
How you doing? And he says oh I’m doing OK! He said well where you at? And he says I’m sitting in the schoolyard.
That is, floating over the schoolyard in an 80 foot barge. Just as devastating, but even more deadly than the earthquake itself, was the tsunami that followed.
The schoolyard in Kodiak was pretty far up above the waterline you knew that that town had been underwater by 10 or 15, 20 feet by then.
Bob knew his home wasn’t flooded because it was on a hill above the schoolyard. But, he couldn’t be sure that his house hadn’t collapsed on his family. And the tsunami waves made it too risky to go home.
We were kind of pinned. We couldn’t do anything. When you reach a point where there’s nothing you can do to take care of your own family you just say OK I’ll take care of what I can and somebody else is going to look after mine, I hope.
That night, over the radio, Allen’s crew learned that the village of Kaguyak had been wiped out. It was only eight miles away. Come morning they set out to help.
They were all on the beach. They were right at the head of the bay right where the old village had been. They had no food, they had no blankets, all they had was that one little radio.And we brought out 46 adults and probably 15 children and one body. They were really in shock they really couldn’t think for themselves you’d take them to the table and set them down with a plate in front of them – hotcakes and sugar syrup. We had a big can of sugar syrup going all the time. We left there and headed for Old Harbor because they were wiped out too. And we’re going through hundreds of empty oil barrels, overturned boats, broke-up houses, deep freezers, refrigerators – anything that could float.
By the time they left Old Harbor, they had 96 adults and 35 kids on board. The plan was to transport the survivors to the Kodiak Naval base. Many had taken a few valued possessions along with them. And when they pulled into shore…
It was just like tying up in a river. The tide is still every 25-30 minutes is going from full high to full low.
They were asked to leave these items on the dock while they boarded the buses. When the buses pulled away the water seeped through the dock and Allen said, “everything they had saved floated away.”
At 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, 33 hours since the start of the quake, Allen finally made it home. An armed guard escorted Bob.
That was the worst part of the whole thing for me was coming home and finding my family gone. All there is is a note on the table from Betty saying that they went to Chiniak. 12 people had drowned on those roads because they had got caught on the head of the bay and that tide washed right up in there and drowned them. So I’m panic stricken!
12 frantic hours later Bob finally gets a call that his wife and kids had been evacuated to Chiniak by plane, and were safe.
Allen: After that I got off the boat I quit fishing and went to work construction.
EF: Did you quit because of this experience?
Allen: Well, there were no canneries left, no place left to sell crab anyway.
When you’re growing up in Alaska its kind of a walking disaster area anyway. Everything always gets rebuilt. Its no problem. I don’t think you’re standing up there or waving a flag or anything. There ain’t a lot of glory in this world.