Memories of 1964 Tsunami Are Still Vivid

Times Staff Writer

Even today, the motels place the one-page flier in each room. “TSUNAMI!” it reads. “How to survive this hazard in the Crescent City Area.”

The sheet features a simple drawing of a giant wave, and a stick figure fleeing up the beach. Anyone can see that the stick figure won’t make it.

Forty years after the only tsunami ever to take lives in the continental United States swept through this town, washing away 29 city blocks and killing 11 people, the calamity seems to hang in the ever-present fog.


“It came all the way from Alaska,” said Wally Griffin, 80, trying to explain the tsunami’s place in the culture of Crescent City. “It traveled at almost 500 miles an hour. It was an amazing thing -- an amazing, tragic thing.”

When the tsunami struck, this was a fishing town and a timber town. It’s neither anymore.

The slow fading of salmon fishing and the one-by-one closures of the 100-odd sawmills fundamentally changed this underemployed, underpaid town of 7,500. But neither erases the memories and awe of the nighttime waves that prompted one city official to say the next morning: “Crescent City is gone.”

Humboldt State University’s geology department offers a full tsunami study curriculum. The local bowling alley is called Tsunami Bowl. Every other cafe, it seems, features Griffin’s black-and-white photos of the wreckage as their primary decor.

At 5:36 p.m. Alaska Standard Time on March 27, 1964, an earthquake struck beneath the seafloor 55 miles west of Valdez, Alaska. It was a magnitude 9.2, larger than this week’s temblor in the Indian Ocean.

The bucking of the ocean floor and subsequent underwater landslides sent out a series of colossal waves that began spreading across the Pacific. The tsunami quickly hit Alaska, killing 106 people in two dozen towns. Over the next few hours, the waves rushed ashore in British Columbia, Canada, then Washington state, causing millions of dollars in damage but taking no lives.

Shortly before midnight, the tsunami hit the town of Newport, Ore., killing four young people who were camping on a beach. Then it headed here.


After a series of tsunami that killed hundreds of people in Hawaii in the 1940s and 1950s, scientists had by then set up a rudimentary warning system.

Late in the evening of the 27th, Bill Parker, the city’s volunteer head of civil defense, got a call about the quake and the tsunami. He did not know for certain that the waves would strike the city, or when, or how high they might be. Also, he was 25 miles up the coast and without a ride home. So he hitchhiked.

When he arrived, Parker and other officials did something that might get them into serious trouble today but which almost everyone here believes saved many lives: They kept the coming tsunami a secret from most residents.

It was night, so the beaches and most of downtown, which then was just three blocks from the water, were largely deserted. Most of the residential areas were farther inland. Parker and the others cordoned off the downtown and beachfront and told those they saw to move to higher ground. But they didn’t broadcast the news on the local radio station or call residents.

“If we’d have said, ‘There’s a tsunami coming,’ people would have come down to watch it,” Parker said. “I would have. It’s human nature. So we didn’t say a word.”

Within the several square miles cordoned off, however, officials couldn’t reach everyone.

A group of family members and friends had gathered at a small bar called the Long Branch Tavern right off the harbor. Owner Bill Clawson’s son Gary, who could not be reached for this story, wrote later that the family had heard word of the coming waves and went to the tavern to retrieve money from the till. But it was his father’s 54th birthday, and the group had lingered in the tavern to celebrate when the first wave came in. It apparently did little damage. They stayed.


Mac McGuire heard about the tsunami after the first wave hit and went to check on his boat, which was anchored near the tavern. It was fine, so he went to the bar for a pack of cigarettes.

“I was about to leave and a guy said, ‘Look, here comes another one,’ ” McGuire recalled. “I saw my truck bouncing on top of another one. Then the wave hit [the tavern] and we were just moving back, back up into the woods -- the whole building.”

McGuire and Gary Clawson helped the others in the tavern climb to its roof, then the two swam to McGuire’s skiff. McGuire stayed near his dock so Clawson could load the boat with the five others.

By the time all were aboard, the Texaco petroleum plant was on fire. It would burn for four days.

“We took off ... with everything smooth and quiet,” Clawson wrote later.

But the tide began rushing out again, faster than anyone had ever seen before, and farther -- the same awesome phenomenon that dragged many to their deaths around the Indian Ocean. The tide, and the boat, were being pulled out to sea by the next wave, this one even bigger.

The boat was sucked into a culvert under a small bridge, and in an instant was smashed. Of the six aboard, only Gary Clawson survived.


The tavern was now 300 feet inland from its foundation. McGuire tried to get to it.

“I swam out there a couple times,” he recalled. “I couldn’t see anything. Now, I know they were already gone.”

Four waves struck that night, the largest -- either the third or fourth -- stood 21 feet tall.

Not far from the tavern, a mother tried to flee with her two children. Her 10-month-old son was swept from her arms and her 3-year-old daughter slipped and was washed away. Another woman drowned after being trapped in her car.

Three others died -- no one’s sure exactly how -- bringing the official death toll to 11. Three more, however, vanished and were never heard from again.

The tsunami destroyed or damaged 91 houses and 172 businesses. It moved the Crescent Lumber store building an entire block. Four cars were left stacked atop one another at Buckner’s Auto Mart. It washed out roads and bridges, power lines and sewage systems.

It tore away a 25-ton hunk of specially molded concrete called a tetrapod, designed to break up heavy waves.


The fuel tanks at the Texaco plant burned and burned. Nickols’ Pontiac dealership caught fire. So did many other buildings.

“I don’t know of a single thing that was on 1st or 2nd Street that’s still there,” said John Bareggi, 76, a logger at the time who used his heavy equipment at sunrise to begin the cleanup. “The waves came in and the waves went out, and they took a lot of things with them.”

It took weeks to clean up, months to restring power lines and repair the sewers, and years to rebuild. Still, downtown Crescent City looks almost nothing like it did on March 27, 1964.

Forty years ago, Second Street and U.S. Highway 101 were one and the same, and served both as the primary business district and the main coastal road. The business district is father inland now, safer up on Third and Fourth streets, and well off the path of the rerouted highway.

Travelers on the coast road now can see neither the perennially struggling mom-and-pop shops nor the memorial to those who died.

Glenn’s Bakery & Restaurant, perhaps the town’s oldest gathering spot, was rebuilt in the new area. It’s bigger than the old shop but lacks the character of the original building, which housed a brothel on the second floor.


The tsunami was a harbinger of sorts for the fishing and timber industries. The waves sank 26 vessels and damaged dozens of others. The dock where lumber was loaded onto freighters was the most devastated one.

The water also swept up thousands of felled redwood, pine and fir trees and drove them through walls, doors and roofs. Several bodies were found beneath logs.

Hundreds of millions of board-feet of lumber were left on the shore for timber companies to fight over.

The end of the timber and fishing eras, not the tsunami, are the main reasons that unemployment stands at about 10% here and that the median household income is $21,000 -- less than half the state average.

Fifteen years after the Northern spotted owl was added to the list of endangered species -- marking the end of the great Western timber rush -- drivers here have stopped sporting “Save a logger, eat a spotted owl” bumper stickers on their trucks. Forty years after the disaster, though, Highway 101 is lined with blue tsunami warning signs.

It’s been a decade or two since most of the salmon fishermen sold their boats. Four decades after the tsunami, though, they, like many others here, keep marine-band radios tuned to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration channels to listen for news of an earthquake anywhere in the Pacific.


Folks here don’t know how to compare the tsunami of 1964 with that of 2004. One small port town gone and 11 people dead felt then and feels now like a terrific tragedy.

“In 1964 we didn’t know, really, what a tsunami was,” Parker said over coffee at Glenn’s. “We’re human, and we go by our old experiences. Then we experienced a tsunami.... It changed the whole town.”