Story last updated at 4/9/2014 - 3:51 pm
In 1964, I was living in Juneau and working for the Alaska Communication System (ACS) at the Lena Point Station, 18 miles north of town. On Good Friday, March 27, a couple of friends and I went out to dinner at a nice restaurant. After the meal, we went back to their apartment.
Communications were not nearly as advanced then as it is today. The Coast Guard had a ship and two boats stationed in Juneau, and their method of recalling crew members to their vessels in event an emergency was to blow a very loud horn that could be heard all over town.
When that horn (the "recall horn") went off, Coast Guardsmen could be seen running and scrambling to get back to their ship or boat as soon as possible.
The two broadcast radio stations in Juneau would announce Coast Guard recall as soon as they heard the horn. A recall usually meant that there was some kind of an emergency, and most Juneauites, me included, would turn on their radios to see if they could hear what the emergency was.
The recall horn went off a little after 7:30 p.m., and my friends and I turned on the radio and listened. An announcer came on with a puzzled sound to his voice and said something like: "Ladies and gentlemen, something is going on, and we don't know exactly what it is. All communication with the Anchorage area has been cut off. We are awaiting further word and will let you know as soon as we hear something."
This was during the Cold War, the era of fallout shelters and "duck and cover."
My friend and fellow ACS employee Jerry and I decided to walk over to the ACS operations building in the sub-port to see if we could find out any information.
Jerry was a Morse code radio operator, and we went up to his work area on the second floor. The radio room was a madhouse. People were scrambling to find out information and to establish communication with the rest of Alaska. All normal lines of communication were out, but occasional bits of information would come through.
I called out to my work station, Lena Point, and talked to the technician on duty. He was very puzzled. "Everything in the entire Anchorage area is out. We have lost all communications. This is spooky."
As I said before, this was a time of threatened nuclear war.
High frequency radio reports started coming through, bits and pieces at a time. An enormous earthquake had hit the Anchorage area, and damage was severe and widespread. Kodiak was expecting a tidal wave, and warnings had gone out. (Tidal wave was the terminology used in those days. The term tsunami was not yet in common use.)
Later in the evening, reports started coming through of the tidal wave coming into Kodiak, and a lot of damage being done.
Jerry and I walked back to our separate apartments an hour or two later. I remember in the night hearing sirens going off, and the police going around with loudspeakers telling people in low lying areas to evacuate to higher ground. My apartment was at about 3rd and Gold streets, which was part way up the hillside, so I stayed where I was.
One of our main communications links into Juneau during that time was a submarine cable that went from Skagway to Juneau to Ketchikan. At Ketchikan it connected to another submarine cable that went from there to the Seattle area, and thus to the outside world.
An underwater landslide a little way south of Haines broke the cable between Skagway and Juneau. This was an important communications link and repairs needed to be made as soon as possible.
Our station manager, Lee Sharp, caught a ride on a Coast Guard's 95-foot patrol boat to go out to look for problem areas. It was to be only a several hour trip, so he took only a camera with him to document damage.
The patrol boat got caught up in rescue work, and he was on it for a few days with nothing but the clothes that he was wearing. The ACS cable ship Lenoir came up from Seattle and repaired the damage several days later.
The ACS was flooded with "I'm/we're OK" telegrams in the hours and days after the quake. Telegrams could get through much easier with a lot less equipment than phone calls.
The next morning, I went to work on day shift, and it was a very busy day. Communication links were out all over the state, and we rushed from one repair job to another. I finally made it through the hectic day and went home at the end of my shift.
I was scheduled for Sunday and Monday off, so I had two days to rest. Local telephone service in Juneau was very limited at that time. Phone lines were in short supply, and thus phone service was hard to get.
I had not been able to get a phone in the apartment where I lived, and was unable to call my parents back in North Dakota and tell them that I was OK. The news media had reported that the tsunami had gone through southeastern Alaska, and that there had been a lot of death and destruction.
I was finally able to get to a phone and call my parents on Sunday afternoon. Even then I had to try several times before I could get through. But I finally did get through and give my folks the welcome news that I was OK, as was all of Juneau. My Dad told me many years later that it was one of the best Easter presents that he ever got.
News was hard to get, as most of the communications with Anchorage was out, and what was working was sporadic.
One of the AM broadcast stations in Anchorage had a mobile studio that they drove to local newsworthy events. They set up their mobile studio somewhere in Anchorage and used it as a news center. Places all over Alaska were clamoring for news out of Anchorage, so the ACS sent the audio feed from the station around the state.
One of the radio stations in Juneau - KINY if I remember correctly - broadcast the feed live and almost continuously, breaking in only for local station identification. On Monday, I walked downtown to a local café, a place called Percy's. They had set up a radio, tuned it to the live feed from Anchorage, and had it turned up loudly for the whole place to hear. People sat in small silent groups, just listening.
The main ACS communications station in Anchorage was on Government Hill, just outside of Elmendorf Air Force Base. Government Hill was one of the areas that was very badly hit by the quake. The ACS station was badly damaged and was out of service for several hours. The station was operated with limited service on temporary repairs for some time afterwards.
Even though I never felt the quake, it was quite an experience.
Later in my career, I lived in Anchorage for 14 years in the 1980s and 1990s. I also spent some time in the Cold Bay/Dutch Harbor area. I have experienced several earthquakes, two of which were in the 7.5 magnitude range. Earthquakes are unique - once you hear the approaching rumble and roar, and then feel the shaking, you never forget.