Unforgettable: Locals remember 1964 Alaskan earthquake

By on March 26, 2014

Barry West remembers praying on Good Friday, that his life would be spared from the wrath of the second most powerful earthquake in recorded history.

March 27, 1964. It’s 5:37 p.m. in Anchorage, Alaska and a 20-year-old airman from Lititz is walking out of the mess hall at Elmendorf Air Force Base. The next three minutes will last a lifetime.

A 9.2 magnitude megathrust leaves “The Last Frontier’s” most populous city in ruin. An underwater landslide causes Valdez harbor to collapse; tsunamis hit 20 different countries and include a 220-foot wave in ShoupBay; and the U.S. military base providing our first line of defense against the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War was in jeopardy.

That was Good Friday 50 years ago today.

“It just shook like crazy,” said West, remembering snapping electrical wires sounding like guitar strings and cars bouncing back and forth. “Where do you go? What do you do?”

“It was the longest night of prayer and fear that I’ve ever had in my life,” was his quote in a letter sent to his parents and published in the Record Express in early April of 1964. That statement, he said during an interview this week at the Lititz American Legion, still holds true today.

Jim Tribble, who grew up in Manheim and was a 21-year-old air policeman at Elmendorf, just finished his shift when the ‘quake hit.

“It just knocked me on my butt. There was nothing you could do,” was his recollection of the historical moment. “You’re just helpless.”

Someone’s brand new T-bird was being tossed around like a toy in the parking lot, and the macadam on the street was rolling like a wave.

“Off in the distance you could see Mt.McKinley,” West said. “With the (rolling) horizon, Mt.McKinley was waving up and down. It was like Mt.McKinley was actually moving.”

They thought that was it. Two young men from Lititz and Manheim, 20 and 21, were about to die.

“I thought about my parents back home,” West said.

That was Mr. and Mrs. Arthur West of Kissel Hill. The letter they eventually received from their son, verifying that he was safe, must have been an indescribable relief considering they knew about the ‘quake within hours of it happening because West’s oldest brother Richard was working at WGAL at the time.

Ultimately, it took a few days to get word across the country. West was relayed to Lititz with the help of ham radio operators, and Tribble was able to reach his parents through a friend in Portland.

But safety is relative. Multiple aftershocks over several days meant sleepless nights.

“The only safe place was in an airplane,” West said. “It was traumatic.”

In the hours that immediately followed the earthquake, Tribble was busy securing the base, which was a top secret operation due to the proximity of the Russians.

“They did not want any… you’ll see nothing on Elmendorf Air Force Base except one building that was tumbled over,” he said. “They wanted no photographs to show that we were vulnerable. They wanted nothing of the aircraft that were damaged. We were in Code Red.”

Meanwhile, West was sent to downtown Anchorage to help victims and protect property from looters.

“Total destruction,” was his description.

He pointed to a photograph of the Denali Theatre published in the Anchorage Daily Times.

“It was like two, three city blocks dropped straight down,” he said. “This is the marquee of the movie theater, and it’s ground level.”

The April 2, 1964 Record Express reported the story of a Lititz woman and her family narrowly escaping that very theater.

Mrs. Robert Cross, formerly Arlene Erb, lived 11 miles from Anchorage with her husband, a well driller, and their three children. They happened to be in the city for the Good Friday movie when the earthquake struck. Their escape was blocked by a fallen chandelier, but 16-year-old son Richard was able to open a door, at which point they realized the building had sunk 20 feet into the ground. According to the Record Express, they managed to make the dangerous drive home, crossing crevices six inches wide and 100 feet deep.

“The destruction was horrendous,” West said, adding that he did not know Arlene Erb or her family despite their hometown connection.

Remarkably, only 139 people died in this mega-quake, and most of those deaths were tsunami related.

“The death toll was minimal for the size of that earthquake,” said Tribble.

By comparison, the strongest earthquake ever recorded &tstr; a 9.5 at Valdivia, Chile &tstr; killed somewhere between 2,200 and 6,000 people in 1960.

West and Tribble don’t talk about the Good Friday Earthquake that much anymore. In fact, they didn’t even know they were both there at the same time until about three years ago. But they’ll never forget.

“The base hospital was split about 18 inches right down the middle,” Tribble shared as his most vivid memory. “There were two nurses who got 17 infants out of the nursery, two at a time under each arm, jumping this crevice. That really sticks in my mind.”

“Mt.McKinley, going up and down,” said West.

Tribble returned home in December of 1964 and did a couple tours in Vietnam before ending his service in 1969. West headed back east in September of ‘65, and he completed his service in 1966. Neither has been back to Alaska since.

“I’m never going back,” said West. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful state, it’s beautiful country, it’s a hunter’s and fisherman’s paradise, but I have no desire to go back.”

Tribble echoed that sentiment, preferring the relatively earthquake-free lifestyle of southeastern Pennsylvania instead.

Stephen Seeber is the associate editor for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at sseeber.eph@lnpnews.com or at 721-4423.

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