The earthquake that shuddered across Alaska on that Good Friday packed so strong a punch that it knocked out a seismograph in Fairbanks. It took a seismologist at a small college in Mobile, Ala., to warn the world of what was to come.
"It could cause great devastation," Louis Eisele predicted. "You can expect tidal waves from this one."The earthquake had been felt by Eisele's Spring Hill College seismograph. It said the temblor was centered about 3,600 miles northwest of Mobile, in the Gulf of Alaska or near Kodiak Island.
At 8.5 on the Richter scale, the 1964 earthquake was one of the strongest on record.
In the words of the U.S. Geological Survey: "The entire Earth vibrated like a tuning fork."
The quake started at 5:36 p.m. on March 27. Centered under a glaciated peninsula 75 miles east of Anchorage, it altered 100,000 square miles of landscape.
Along a 600-mile arc from Cape Yakataga on the eastern Gulf of Alaska to the Trinity Islands southwest of Kodiak, the land to the north subsided as much as six feet; to the south it rose as much as 50 feet.
Property damage exceeded $311 million.
The earthquake and the seismic sea waves it spawned killed 114 people in Alaska. More than a dozen others died at Depoe Bay, Ore., and Crescent City, Calif., when seismic waves crashed ashore.
In the aftermath came the stories of the lucky and the luckless. Often, merest circumstance determined who died and who survived.
In Anchorage, William Tobin had just parked his car outside the new J.C. Penney Building when he felt a jolt. He stepped from his car ready to have words with another driver.
"I thought some stupid jerk had rammed me from behind," says Tobin, managing editor of the Anchorage Times.
As he got out, a huge slab of the building crashed down, flattening his car.
Nine people in Anchorage weren't so lucky.
In Valdez, many residents had turned out as usual to watch the freighter Chena disgorge its cargo. The arrival of the 400-foot ship always was something special for Valdez folks, and on this day - typically - a crowd was on hand as longshoremen unloaded the vessel.
In an eternity that lasted only moments, Valdez was shaken unmercifully, and the Chena began wallowing insanely, snapping its mooring lines. The dock heaved, rocked, shook and then pitched into the water, carrying onlookers and warehouses.
The Chena survived; the Valdez waterfront and most of the business district were obliterated by collapsing ground and seismic waves.
Thirty-one people died.