Reaching My Family After the 1964 Earthquake

My Grandmother’s house at 8th and M Streets, Anchorage, 1964
My Grandmother’s house at 8th and M Streets, Anchorage, 1964

It was very hard to stay calm and collected when I was calling home to Anchorage at 5:00 pm on Good Friday 1964, only to hear the chronic phone message, “Unable to complete your call due to transmission interruption in southeastern Alaska,” or something on that order. I had never heard anything like that before, but then I didn’t make too many calls home from Oregon while I was in college. I had arranged this date and time with my mother by letter in the weeks prior. I was in college in Eugene but on spring break in Corvallis with some friends from Anchorage and Fairbanks.

After repeated attempts, I gave up and decided to wait until later, never thinking there was anything of a catastrophic nature to upset my equilibrium and put me in a state of real panic as I was to learn within the hours and days to come. Nothing this severe had happened in my life to this date.

My Anchorage friend, who had the car, and I decided to head out for something to eat at the local college town low cost eatery starting at 25¢ for a hamburger, fries at 19¢ a packet, and ketchup at no charge. Just like other young people the radio was set to turn on in the car immediately upon startup. There were no tunes of the day as there should have been, but the loud frantic, broken static radio voice announcing a severe earthquake in Alaska. And soon a USAF Major from Elmendorf acting as a spokesman for Anchorage was announcing that there were 3000 people dead on the streets of downtown Anchorage! We had to listen over and over again to be sure what we were hearing was legitimate. After all this was a Major in the military. No wonder I couldn’t get through on the phone line.

My grandmother lived in “downtown” Anchorage at 8th & M Streets, one and half blocks from the bluff around 9th Avenue. I could only imagine the worse and figured I might not see my family ever again. We had had mild earthquakes in Anchorage before. So what was this one about! As a young person I don’t think I’d even ever heard of “bad” earthquakes before.

Needless to say our food order idea was nothing to be concerned about now even though we had food orders from three guys in the house where we were staying in Corvallis. My friend and I ran into the house and announced it in as frightening voices as we could propel and with the most serious tones we could exude.

The radio was the only source to get the news in those days for such a catastrophe. It was all we could listen to for updates. Ham radio operators that received much credit in those early days and weeks of the post earthquake trauma and drama weren’t on our college contact list in 1964. I don’t even recall at what day and time we finally got more of the full story immediately after that destructive date. The evening television news was nothing to rely upon. The newspapers were delayed in getting telling photos and news releases too, due to the wire transmissions being down for weeks.

I kept trying to reach my folks to no avail. Talk about living in limbo and fear!

While my grandmother was downtown, my folks were in Spenard on 26th Ave. My aunt and uncle were out in Turnagain. And of course, most of my friends in Anchorage were schoolmates from West Anchorage High School, North Star and church. I went to Fairbanks for my first year of college so a lot of those contacts were away too, doing their own work and education pursuits elsewhere.

Three weeks after the event in Alaska, I finally got some accurate word about my family.

It was the above photo of my grandmother’s house as it appeared in the Portland Oregonian! It didn’t present a good picture of the situation. As I was to find out later, my grandmother got out of that house, one of the first built by my carpenter grandfather in 1934, then 30 years old. The entry steps nailed to the wood top framing at both the front and back kept the house from falling into the fissure, which ran from the back alley side of the property to the front street edge on M Street. The single car garage behind the house was only slightly crinkled. The photo shows the broken snow edge, the dark soil being the fissure.

My grandmother couldn’t get out of the house on her own because she had fallen in the kitchen area due to the violent tremors of the quake. The refrigerator towards the back of the kitchen had slid towards the front entry of the kitchen and towards the front door.

The severe tilt of the house along with her shaken self allowed for no freedom in getting to the other hallway and working her way to the street side on 8th to call for help. She probably had no idea that her house was sitting on the precipice’s edge at that point in time. And knowing Alaska, it was dark within an hour of the ‘quake, further compounding her exit, assuredly without power. She had to be shaken to the core, thinking of any way around and out the house to be saved before anything worse happened. The dinner of king crab would never be eaten and lent to the reeking, rotten smell in the following days and weeks within the house.

The neighbors weren’t any better off and being that it was Friday of Easter weekend, they wouldn’t know if she was home or elsewhere. Eventually the family across the street was able to pry something open to help her out four hours later! That would have been 9:00 pm in the dark! Fortunately she was just scraped up badly. The hospital, old Providence, was the next block over on L Street. The parking lot was closer to her property. Maybe it wasn’t in the business of medical service then as it was cracked and damaged significantly. It took my father another hour and a half to get from Spenard to reach her and take her to my parent’s house. My parents only suffered lots of broken dishes out of the cupboards from the rocking and rolling. My grandmother’s long used china, crystal and Franciscan Rose everyday ware was history, too, for the most part. I have the remnants to this day.

My grandmother survived very well for a woman of her age at 74. Far better than many of her peers, friends in Eastern Star and Amaranth in downtown Anchorage, who met at the Masonic Temple above Woolworth’s on 4th Ave. She moved to Seattle around 1965 to live in a Seattle apartment hotel where several other senior ladies rented apartment rooms, too. She mentioned several times how nervous and unsettled many of the women from Anchorage were those years around the quake. And of course the Major’s statement of 3000 dead in the streets of Anchorage was dramatically corrected to considerably less, eventually totaling 103, as I learned in recent years. In 1992, I learned also that the ‘quake was elevated to the 9.2 level, becoming the worse in US history.

Her property was condemned for twenty years and ‘was not to be built on again’ given the size of the fissure, along with the other property damage on the bluff adjacent to her house, and also below the cliff next to the inlet. On one of my last trips to Anchorage I observed a multistory, multiple unit building almost fully complete; so much for no more building there. Similar reconstruction occurred to 3rd, 4th and 5th Avenues with their sunken streets.

Ironically around 1974, my mother moved into the supposed “1st earthquake proof building” in Anchorage, the Four Seasons complex around the corner, which pancaked very well in the rumble and tumble of March 27th, 1964; The Koslosky home, to the left, between each structure, experienced less damage as I heard in the months to come but can’t remember all the details.

Grandmother’s garden, 1959.
Grandmother’s garden, 1959.

My grandparents’ large lot, where potatoes, carrots, and a mini field of beautiful flowers on the corner was gone forever to my grandmother. Her life was inexorably altered; it became simpler with so much community and home loss that had to have brought painful memories. We Americans see that frequently in other tragedies around our country and others now, where starting over has to be tough on the spirit. Japan has suffered in much worse circumstances with their 9 pt ‘quake several years ago.

I went back home in the summer of 1964 only to feel first hand what an earthquake of 4 plus magnitude was like. My mother issued a quick demand to get under the door frame!

That and more were strong enough for me! While Anchorage continued to have those after shocks all summer it was nothing as hard as the big one. I was a thankful person for that situation.

Years later, about 1993, Portland would have a 5.3 quake at 5:30 am. There was no way I could get out of bed or stand to reach my door frame! So I learned what my family experienced that day in Anchorage and certainly the fear my grandmother went through in her tiny home. I always think of her Franciscan dinnerware coming through the ‘quake, a broken set then but with the loving memory of all the fine meals she served on those plates and dishes. And that she survived probably the most horrific experience in her life up to that time.

God Bless you Grams in heaven! I am glad you survived.

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Born and reared in Anchorage, and a North Star Elementary School trainee and 1962 West High School graduate, Connie went to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks in 1963, then to the University of Oregon. In college she worked summers at the Anchorage Times in the advertising department.  In 1966 she moved to LA to get her ‘big’ city experience, then to Las Vegas to become an Advertising Manager for a national retail chain. She also lived in NY City for several months, moved to Oregon, where she resided for 36 years.  Connie has had a juvenile book in the works, was prior adjunct college faculty for Adult Ed., and is a retired Language Arts and ESL instructor.


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