Warehouses at the toe of the Fourth Avenue landslide in Anchorage were destroyed by compressional buckling and foreshortening. Much of the supply of food and drink for the city was stored in these buildings, and they were guarded by Eskimo units of the Alaska National Guard.
Story last updated at 3/26/2014 - 1:36 pm
On the evening of March 27, 1964, Wallace "Sandy" Williams was ready to go home.
The 28-year-old National Guard lieutenant was nearing the end of a two-week National Guard training session at Camp Denali, near Anchorage. His wife, Susanne, was just a few weeks away from giving birth to the couple's second son, Michael.
"It was the Friday before we were heading home, just finishing up," he recalled. "The Nevada air Guard was going to lift us back (to Juneau) early next morning ... so we were packing up and winding down. I was standing up in the Quonset hut, which what the Guard had for quarters up there. ... The sergeant major's parade was going by, and I was probably in my stocking feet with fatigue pants on and a T-shirt on, and things started to rattle."
At 5:36 p.m., the world's second-largest earthquake struck Southcentral Alaska. It was centered 78 miles east of Anchorage, but its magnitude 9.2 strength was felt across Alaska, with some people saying they felt it as far south as Portland.
"The first thought coming across my mind was 'Wow! That band is really in tune.'" Williams said. "Then, as the wall lockers started to clatter against the wall, I realized we had two feet of snow out there and frost down another couple of feet: something's wrong.
"I went bailing out the door of the Quonset hut and me and a fella landed in a snowbank, at which time I looked across the road at the marching band going by, and there was a tuba player on the ground. He stood back up and immediately went back down on the ground, and I remember he stayed down. Then I looked back across the parade field and saw a roll, literally a roll, maybe a foot high or maybe a little more that was going through the field.
"We really weren't sure what was going on. I don't recall thinking earthquake; it wasn't really on my mind. It went on for a really long time. It was not seconds, it was minutes, and the trees were whipping back and forth, and then it settled down. I just stood up and wondered what went on here? And then you started to smell gas."
The shaking lasted for nearly three minutes and caused widespread destruction. In Valdez, an underwater landslide pulled away the town's waterfront, killing more than two dozen people. The resulting tsunami swept into downtown, destroying it.
At Seward, another underwater landslide wrecked the tracks of the Alaska Railroad and washed boats into town. Similar scenes took place in Kodiak and other coastal communities.
At Girdwood and Portage, just south of Anchorage, the ground sank and the water rushed in. Girdwood was eventually relocated inland, but Portage was never rebuilt. Destroyed homes and a flooded forest are still visible to drivers on the Seward Highway, which had to be rebuilt in spots.
Anchorage was spared tsunami, but the earthquake's shaking liquefied the soil beneath some sections of town. At Government Hill, an elementary school (fortunately empty) broke in half as the ground beneath one side gave way. Along Fourth Avenue, more than a dozen blocks of storefronts slid down one floor, putting their marquees even with the street level.
The worst destruction was along Turnagain Arm, where dozens of homes were damaged or destroyed by the collapsing earth.
"When I first saw that, my thought came to mind that Paul Bunyan came through with his blue ox, Babe," Williams said. "And Paul had a big basket and he picked up all the houses and put 'em in the basket. Then Babe went through and plowed it with a big plow. And then Paul Bunyan took the basket and tossed it in the air and the houses all landed about the same vicinity ... but they were in all kinds of shapes and forms."
For Anchorage, help was close at hand. According to the state's official tally, Alaska had 2,281 National Guardsmen in 1964. On the day of the earthquake, all but a handful were within a few miles of Anchorage, attending the annual spring encampment at Fort Richardson's Camp Denali.
Among the soldiers were two of Alaska's famed Eskimo scout battalions, an infantry battalion and the 910th Engineer Company, of which Williams was a member.
"Of course, the 910th got reactivated immediately," Williams recalled.
Engineer officers were in high demand after the earthquake. The 910th commanding officer, Roger Henderson, was the director of planning for the Alaska Department of Highways and found himself pulled away from his unit to inspect bridges.
Williams was pulled away from his unit and given command of a platoon from Company D of the 1st Scout Battalion, 297th Infantry. As he soon found out, not all of his new soldiers spoke English as a first language.
"I can remember about 1 o'clock Saturday morning standing on the top of a deuce-and-a-half (2 1/2-ton truck) in front of the police station, which was on Sixth Street in Anchorage, and I had a sergeant on one side of me and a sergeant on the other side, and I was barking orders, and I'd pause a moment. One sergeant would bark orders in his dialect and the next sergeant would do it in his dialect. Then I'd bark some more orders," Williams said.
Their first duty was security. Power had been knocked out across Southcentral Alaska, and there were fears that hungry or scared people might start looting. Williams' platoon was assigned to Warehouse Row, a collection of industrial buildings near the Alaska Railroad yard in downtown Anchorage.
There, Anchorage Cold Storage (today called Odom Corporation) had a warehouse stocked with $1 million dollars of liquor. During the shaking, one wall of the warehouse gave way, and official records say bottles were clearly visible from the outside.
The Guardsmen had no ammunition, but fears of looting proved to be overblown. According to the official history of the disaster, Anchorage police did arrest some looters, but not in the numbers feared at the time.
Williams recalls one notable incident on patrol during a day when civilians were allowed into the area to begin repairs. Anyone authorized to be in the area was supposed to have a colored paper badge indicating permission.
"I came across a couple of scout boys with a civilian down on the ground and their bayonets pointed down," he said. "It turned out it was the gentleman in charge of Odom's warehouse and he didn't have his badge on. Shortly after that, they decided anybody could go in there during daylight hours. That little thing got taken care of."
Williams and his borrowed platoon stayed on patrol for about 10 days before returning home.
He returned to his job as a state roads engineer, but the disaster continued to affect his life. Before the earthquake, he had been in charge of planning a road connecting Cordova to the Richardson Highway. The earthquake destroyed many of the railroad bridges that highway would have used. The project was dropped, and Cordova remains without a road to the rest of Alaska.
Wallace "Sandy" Williams continues to live in Juneau with his wife, Susanne.