Remembering the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake

As we come upon the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, we’ve been seeing news stories focused on it and hearing the incredible stories from people who lived through it. Two Athabascan men shared their memories on Facebook and have graciously allowed me to share it here. Claude Demientieff was in Nulato and in his teens of the time of the quake. Will Yaska was seven years old in an Anchorage hospital. Will is a my first cousin, once removed. They share their memories in their own words.

Claude Demientieff and his dog Missy. Photo by Ronn Murray
Claude Demientieff and his dog Missy. Photo by Ronn Murray

Claude Demientieff’s Memory
March 27th, 1964, Anchorage shook like it never shook before. It’s been 50 years. Still, I remember our house in Nulato shook. Not much, just enough to recognize it’s a quake. Having just sat down to dinner it was a surprise to us. Dad’s brother’s uncles, Rudy and Fred, were in town for the Easter holiday. It shook, we look at each other around the table. What? Uncle Fred say. He had not felt it having stood at just that moment to reach across the table for mashed potatoes. “Earthquake”, someone say. A rare event for us in Nulato. After dinner, APRN radio news from Galena went on.

‘Anchorage destroyed!’ were the first reports. This caused mom to drop to her knees and start praying. She was worried sick since her two sisters, Mary and Margaret, were in Anchorage at the time. Fr. Endall, having dinner with us, excused himself and went back to the little mission quarters for priests and nuns next to the church.

It wasn’t long before the church bell started tolling, calling the village to rosary, as we had just had Good Friday high mass. Stations of the Cross had been announced earlier and most if not all of us were prepared for confession, rosary and a quiet Good Friday evening.

After church, no new news on the radio other than ham radio contact with someone in Anchorage. Much to mom’s relief it [Anchorage] was still there, but without phones. Those days, we were unable to contact anyone. Couldn’t anyway, since Anchorage was cut off. Mom was worried the entire evening, so she and dad started making plans to go to galena to use the phone, then go to anchorage if necessary.

Uncles said they’ll stay and watch the house and store dad owned. Worried for my aunties in Anchorage, I thought it inappropriate to celebrate my uncles staying with me. Only us. Learning from one uncle was wonderful, but to have both of them was an unbelievable stroke of luck. They were so much fun as a boy, awesome hunting teachers to learn how to be a man. I was overjoyed.

We’d spend the whole time on my short snare line, or so I imagined. Mom and dad went to Galena, and it took several days to track down the aunties. Made contact and did not go to Anchorage since all was okay even though the city was a mess. They came home and the next barge season found all kinds of new slides and eddies on the Yukon. Eagle slide was one of them. Had not been there the year before, now a big slide and huge eddy.

Will Yaska. Courtesy photo
Will Yaska. Courtesy photo

Will Yaska’s Memory
I was in the hospital at that time. Every morning one of the hospital staff woke up us kids for meals or meds. I was sound asleep in my bed which had wheels. It began to wheel around the floor. It was weird of the staff to wake me up like that.

I looked all over for the one who was rocking my bed, nobody under there. It occurred to me that maybe the person was under the bed, so I reached as far as I could to look under. But I went too far and toppled over. And I was amazed that there wasn’t anybody under the bed. Since my legs atrophied I couldn’t walk and the bed on wheels kept running into me. I had to grab the bed to lessen it from slamming into me.

When I got my bearing I saw the ceiling crack open. The shaking finally stopped and all the doctors fled, leaving only the nurses and patients to fend for themselves. The nurses decided to evacuate everybody. I went with some other kids to the elevator. Down we went, then aftershocks hit and the elevator jammed between floors. We must have been there for about an hour. That’s where the rules say don’t use elevator during disaster came from. The door was finally forced open by the only male brave enough to stay around – the janitor.

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Thank you to Claude and Will sharing their memories of the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake. I’ve enjoyed hearing people’s stories in the news this month. Earthquakes and tsunamis happen, and the 50th anniversary is a good reminder to be prepared for natural disasters. There are a lot of resources, such as www.ready.gov or Alaska Homeland Security & Emergency Management: http://www.ak-prepared.com/.

2 thoughts on “Remembering the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake”

  1. Wow – gives me goosebumps to read these stories! In Tok I remember seeing the trees sway back and forth and then my White dad trying to hear what was going on with our 2 foot high radio. No TV back then. Thanks Angela for posting these stories and thanks to Claude and Will for such excellent writing!

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