Good Friday Earthquake

Print More

(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange didn’t feel either of our recent earthquakes, but they got him thinking of another one that’s hard to forget.

(LANGE) You’d hardly know it, but the northern fringe of the VPR listening area is an active earthquake zone. Our two recent mild earthquakes reminded me of another tremor that occurred during the season of Lent.

It happened a long way from here, on Good Friday, 1964. Our east coast evening news told of a powerful earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska, with devastating tsunamis all along the coast.

Coastal Alaska is part of the so-called “ring of fire” around the Pacific Basin, where collisions of tectonic plates cause violent quakes. Alaskans are familiar with them. “It sounds like a train coming,” one of them said. “Then you remember there aren’t any trains; and everything starts shaking. Soon the sound moves away, but things still shake a little.” He spoke of it as we might speak of sleet or freezing rain.

Visiting Anchorage in 1999, we stopped at Turnagain Arm, where once had stood a residential development. The sheer zone of the quake was still sharp. The houses on the seaward side had shattered and slid down to water level. Later, in Valdez, we saw where the town had once stood at the head of its fjord before it was overwhelmed by a tsunami. Tsunamis build to incredible heights – in Valdez, 70 meters – as they funnel between narrowing walls. The village of Kodiak, 260 miles away, still had the high-water mark on the police station 35 feet above sea level. Another phenomenon called a seiche, like the sloshing in a moving dishpan, occurred that day in harbors in Louisiana, where several fishing boats were sunk.

Anne Thomas Donaghy, of Plainfield, New Hampshire, was eight years old and living in one of those houses on the bluff above Turnagain Arm. That Friday afternoon she was home with her mother and brother. About half-past five, they heard a rumble. “Let’s go outside,” said Mrs. Thomas. “It’s another little earthquake.”

By the time they reached the door, the whole house was shaking violently. The ground split, and their house shattered and splintered. A trench opened between Anne and her mother; they reached for each other and hung on. A children’s swing set moved past on its own piece of earth.

When the shaking finally subsided, they had slid almost to the water. Fearing a tsunami, they began searching for a way up the new cliff that stood where their yard had been. The Thomases all survived. A neighbor family lost two children when one ran back into their house to rescue the other.

That quake 41 years ago generated the power of 12,000 nuclear bombs in a spot beneath Prince William Sound. Most of its victims were lost in tsunamis. Alaska today builds more prudently, but the Eastern Pacific tectonic plate continues to slide about seven centimeters a year beneath the North American.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

Comments are closed.