Petersburg family remembers Alaskan earthquake
Photo courtesy of the Alaska Sportsman and Alaska Magazine
The ground was still shaking as Phil Meeks and Pamela Jensen jumped out of their house (lower left) the day of the earthquake.
Fifty years ago today, March 27, 1964 the largest U.S. earthquake ever recorded rocked southern Alaska.
Petersburg resident and Harbor Way Parts Owner Phil Meeks was seven years old at the time. He was building a snow fort in his Anchorage front yard just before the 9.2 magnitude earthquake struck.
"I remember feeling frustrated that my fort wouldn't stand up," Meeks said. "It kept caving in."
Meeks said when the Great Alaskan Earthquake began he noticed the sound more than motion.
"It went from a dead silence to an absolute roar," Meeks said.
Meeks' sister, Pamela Jensen who was ten at the time, was cooking a meatloaf in the home their family was house sitting on Turnagain Arm overlooking Cook Inlet. Their mother, Joan Shilling, was out shopping for a used car.
"The house started going in all different directions," Jensen said. "The dining room went one direction. The whole floor fell out of the front room. There was this deafening noise of everything falling apart. The meatloaf came out of the oven. There was meatloaf and glass everywhere."
Meeks said he doesn't quite remember going from the front yard into the house, only the roar of the earth beneath the house being ripped apart.
According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964 advanced the theory of plate tectonics-a theory that describes earth's outer layer as broken up into 12 separate plates that shift and move over time. Earthquakes are a result of those plates interacting or colliding.
The Alaskan-Aleutian subduction zone-part of the Pacific "ring of fire"-is where an ocean plate descends underneath a continental plate. These interactions cause some of the largest and most violent "megathrust" earthquakes.
As Meeks and Jensen clutched their kitchen counters to keep from tumbling into the dining room, they had no idea that their home-which at that point had ripped off its foundation and was sliding down Turnagain Arm-was located along the "ring of fire."
"As we were standing there I could see gloves and coats and pales through the floor just churning like in a washing machine in the dirt," Meeks said. "We stood there until it ended, holding on to each other and when we opened the door the only thing you could see was all the ground that had dropped away. We had to jump down to the ground level. There were telephone poles and trees lying on their sides and the ground was still moving a little bit."
Only five minutes passed between the time Meeks was building his snow fort and Jensen put the meatloaf in the oven to when their entire neighborhood crashed through the crumbling earth.
As Meeks and Jensen gained their bearings, she remembers seeing a woman standing outside her home clutching her son in a bath towel.
"He had been in the bathtub and it had collapsed on him and he was all cut up and bleeding," Jensen said.
Jensen wasn't wearing shoes or a jacket as she and her brother climbed through the wreckage looking for safety. Meeks said they made it about 100 yards before they weren't able to navigate through the torn earth any longer.
"We were standing in the snow," Meeks said. "We were crying. There was a lady above us trying to listen to emergency personnel and I can remember her yelling at us to shut up so she could hear the radio."
A fireman eventually showed up and let Pam wear some of his gear.
While Meeks and Jensen were climbing their way out of the landslide, their mother was desperately searching for them.
Shilling had been shopping for a used car before the earthquake began.
"I got into the drivers seat to start it," Shilling said. "That was about when it happened. I thought there was something wrong with the transmission in the car."
Shilling remembers the car salesman telling her to lie down on the ground as the cars in the lot bounced up and down with the trembling concrete.
After the main tremors, she searched without success for her children at a local church. Afterwards she witnessed the devastation of her neighborhood.
"I remember looking at what happened to other people and that made me nervous because I was afraid...back at the house there was so much destruction," Shilling said. "I thought that since they were so young and saw how bad the destruction was, I was afraid they were lost."
Meeks said he and his sister were walking along a road when they saw their mother for the first time.
"In her mind we were probably gone," Meeks said. "Somehow we met each other in the middle of that road. We found each other and had this big emotional reunion. We had nowhere to go. Everything was in the house. Everything was gone."
"I was really thrilled to finally find them because I was about at the end of my hope," Shilling said. "I didn't know where else to go."
The family headed to Providence Hospital for several days because of the tsunami threat. Later, a family invited Shilling and her children into their home where they used flashlights and candles because the power was still out.
Although 50 years have passed since those traumatic events, Meeks and Jensen still think about the earthquake often.
Meeks, who works in construction, becomes uncomfortable on unstable ground and has recurring nightmares.
Jensen happens to be in Anchorage this week traveling with her husband.
"Every time I come into Anchorage I have these vivid, vivid recollections of things," Jensen said. "I do have a lot of dreams. I've had dreams of our house in Petersburg falling apart. It stays with you for a very, very long time. The power of nature is truly amazing."
131 people lost their lives during the earthquake and tsunamis and property loss was estimated at around $2.3 billion.
USGS scientist George Plafker investigated the cause of the earthquake afterwards in an effort to understand if and when it could happen again.
According to the USGS, "By drilling 50 feet into the earth and taking core samples along the Copper River, Plafker and his research team discovered evidence of nine megathrust earthquakes that had occurred in south central Alaska over the past 5,500 years. The average time span between these quakes is about 600 years. This statistic provides an idea of earthquake probability. However, it is important to recognize that scientists cannot predict earthquake events."
Much progress has been made in earthquake science and detection since the disaster in 1964, when there were only two seismic stations recording the waves sent from movements along the earth's plates. Now the Alaska Earthquake Center receives data from more than 400 seismic sites.