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Vacation Memories : The Day After Alaska’s Great Shake

<i> Fowler is a free-lance writer living in Sherman Oaks</i>

A quarter-century ago I flew north to visit my Air Force son, Will Jr., at Elmendorf Air Base outside Anchorage, Alaska.

It was a period following the frightening Alaska earthquake that struck at 5:56 p.m. on Good Friday, March 27, 1964, registering the greatest earth-shock known to modern man.

The quake’s awesome power released immense pressure that had built up over eons.

When it was over it carved down shorelines, thrust Kenai Peninsula up eight feet, dropped Kodiak Island five feet into the ocean and ripped slits hundreds of feet deep in bays, inlets and rivers.

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What damage the quake failed to do, monstrous tidal waves completed. In minutes, 114 were dead in Anchorage, Seward, Turnagain, Valdez, Cordova and Homer. It was the mightiest shock wave in recorded history, registering 8.6 on the Richter scale.

Driving from Anchorage International Airport, I saw the extensive damage. In addition to leveled buildings and sidewalks, an area opened that appeared to have been cleared for a park. Later I learned that the space represented four city blocks that had literally been swallowed up by the quake.

Tallest Survivor

The 15-story Westward Hotel suddenly gained the distinction of being the tallest structure to survive a shock of such magnitude.

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The picture window in my room offered a panoramic view of mountain and sea.

I peered down upon a now-quiet city. Rubble was being cleared away. It seemed natural to liken Anchorage to the mythical Phoenix, which rose from funerary ashes to live on through the ages.

Later at the Anchorage Daily Times, editor Bernard Kosinski told us how the Civil Air Patrol, with only nine planes, had flown 986 sorties, carrying 321 passengers and 427,760 pounds of medical supplies a total of 120,400 air miles.

“Good Lord,” said the intense Kosinski. “The eight-story Captain Cook Hotel was under construction when the quake hit. Now the work crews are going at it 24 hours a day to finish it in time for the influx of visitors we expect to be coming up here so they can say, ‘I visited Anchorage where they had the big quake.’ ”

The quake moved Kosinski’s newspaper building an entire city block from its foundation.

Tour of Destruction

In 1964 only two roads led out of Anchorage, Seward Highway to the south and the Glenn Highway heading north for Fairbanks.

With my son I took the Seward, beginning a 40-mile tour along the Turnagain Arm. As we tooled along, Will told how 80% of Alaska’s highways were unpaved. The ruts kept us to a sensible speed.

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By then we had traveled 25 miles, and newly born tides had shut down the highway except for restricted hours in the mornings and afternoons.

The Turnagain tide, which rose 40 feet in a matter of minutes, had become the second-greatest tide on earth, second only to the one at Newfoundland’s Bay of Fundy.

Later we continued past Kenai Peninsula to Girdwood, a happy little town of 75, snug in a lower crevasse of Mt. Alyeska.

We took a chairlift to gaze across at the great Portage Glacier spilling into Turnagain Inlet. It lay across the brooding terrain like a great white bear languishing beneath a sun that skip-danced on the horizon, refusing to set.

On our return we misjudged our timing as the tide moved in again. We would have to wait until 11 p.m. before continuing.

That was when we saw a sign that read “Double Muskey Inn.” Inside, we met proprietor Julian Mule, who said the Double Muskey was a drink he accidentally created when he had only ale and Burgundot mix.

After tippling a couple of Muskeys, we headed back to Anchorage.

It had been one of those days to file away in memory--a day of beauty and one filled with reminders of the earthquake that had shaken Alaska on Good Friday.

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