In this story from April 1965, the wife of politician Lowell Thomas, Jr., recalls the earthquake that struck Alaska in 1964.
- Posted on Mar 24, 2020
It began as such a happy day, Good Friday one year ago. The snow which had been coming down for two days let up which meant that my husband Lowell fly to Fairbanks, and get back in time for us to have all of Easter weekend together.
The children and I waved goodbye as he drove off to the airport, then shut the door quickly because it was still below freezing outside. About five o’clock, feeling lonesome for him, Anne, eight, David, six, and I went upstairs to watch TV. Anne and David were wearing blue jeans and cotton T-shirts; I had on a wool dress and nylon stockings. We took off our shoes so we could sit on the bed.
It was half an hour later that I heard a rumbling sound. Although we frequently hear a similar roaring—the firing of guns at a nearby Army base—I knew instantly that this was the sound of an impending earthquake.
I leaped up, called to the children to follow, and raced for the stairs. By the time we reached the front hall the whole house was beginning to shake. We ran outside into the snow, David crying, “Mommy, I’m in bare feet!”
We were about 10 feet beyond the door when the world around us fell apart. We were flung violently to the ground which was jolting back and forth with unbelievable force.
The hallway through which we had just run split in two. We heard the crashing of glass, the ear-rending sound of splintering wood. In front of us a great tree crashed full length onto the ground. Our garage collapsed with a sharp report.
Now the earth began breaking up and buckling all about us. Suddenly between Anne and me a great crack opened in the snow. I stared in disbelief as the trench widened, apparently bottomless, separating me from my child. I seized the hand she stretched out to me in time to pull her across the chasm to my side.
By now the whole lawn was breaking up into chunks of dirt, rock, snow and ice. We were left on a wildly bucking slab; suddenly it tilted sharply, and we had to hang on to keep from slipping into a yawning crevasse. Though sobbing, Anne had the presence of mind to hang on by herself—thank God, for I was holding David with one hand, our bit of ground with the other.
Now the earth seemed to be rising just ahead of us. I had the weird feeling that we were riding backward on a monstrous Ferris wheel, going down, down toward the water (our house had stood on a high bluff overlooking Cook Inlet). When the worst of the rocking stopped, I looked around and saw that the entire face of the bluff had fallen to sea level. A few feet away, at the water’s edge, lay the roof of our house.
All I could think of was that the water would rise as earth tumbled into it and we would be trapped. The cliffs above us were sheer, with great sections of sand and clay still falling.
The children both were hysterical, crying and saying over and over, “We’ll die! We’ll die!” I realized we’d have to find a way up that cliff but the children were too frightened to walk.
I suggested that we say a prayer asking Jesus to take care of us and guide us. Both children stopped crying, closed their eyes and fervently pleaded with Him to come and help us. This had an extraordinary effect on them and on me, and we set out with the first real stirrings of hope.
The next 20 minutes were one great nightmare as we clambered up and down the great slabs of earth and snow, our bare feet aching and raw in the cold. I found a large tree leaning against the cliff and thought for a few moments that we might be able to shinny up it, but we gained only a few feet. We kept moving to the right, trying to avoid holes which opened at our feet and rubble still falling from the cliff.
Suddenly a man appeared above us. “Help!” we called to him. He shouted down that he would hunt for a rope, then disappeared. As we waited we were aware for the first time that we were soaked to the skin from lying in the snow; the children were shaking and their lips were blue.
At last six or eight men appeared at the top of the cliff. One of them, a stranger to us, started down toward us, finding one less steep spot. The children threw their arms around him as he reached us. He took off his black wool jacket, put it around Anne, then boosted David into his arms and led us all back up along the rope.
At the top there was a steep, sheer rim which I doubt I could have scaled by myself. But willing hands hauled us up and tucked us into a waiting car. When I turned to thank our rescuer, he had gone. But nearby I saw the strained, white face of our neighbor Wanda Mead. Someone told me that two of her five children were missing.
We were driven to the home of friends who lived well away from the devastated area. They wrapped us in blankets, but there was no heat in the house nor any way to make a hot drink.
The children were offered beds but refused to leave my side where I huddled with the others over the portable radio; they finally curled up in sleeping bags on the floor. Sleep for me was impossible until two questions were answered: had Fairbanks, where Lowell was, felt the quake, and how could we get word to him that we were all right?
The radio reported all the homes along our street destroyed, and that the two Mead children were still missing. I winced at the frequent pleas, “Urgent to Dr. Mead…needed immediately at Providence Hospital.”
Perry Mead, Alaska’s only neurosurgeon, spent the next 24 hours going from bed to bed at the hospital, tending to the needs of others while tears for his children streamed down his face.
The radio listed tremendous damage in the downtown area. We, living in Anchorage, watching it grow day by day, had felt personal pride in each new building that rose. Now the tally of damaged schools, stores and office buildings mounted by the hour.
There was a continuous stream of “Tell John his father and mother are at the Stewarts,” or “The Johnson family wants to know the whereabouts of daughter Ann.” It seemed an eternity to me before radio contact was reestablished with Fairbanks and we learned that it had felt merely a strong jolt. Planes were arriving from there with doctors and supplies, and I knew Lowell would be aboard one of them.
Then suddenly the announcer’s voice said, “If anyone knows the whereabouts of Mrs. Lowell Thomas and family, please contact us immediately.” I ran to the telephone and was so overwhelmed to find it working that I could hardly talk to the person who answered. But I got the essentials through, and just half an hour later Lowell walked through the door.
Words cannot describe our reunion. The kids and I were tremendously relieved, but Lowell’s emotions were those of a man who had not known for many hours whether his family was dead or alive.
Next morning, Easter Sunday, Lowell, Anne, David and I rose early. We put on the same clothes we had been wearing for two days: Anne the coat provided by our unknown rescuer, far more meaningful to her than any Easter bonnet; David a pair of pants too small to button, me some men’s corduroy trousers.
Many in the Easter congregation wore similar misfits, and the air in the heatless church was so cold that our breaths hung white above us as we sang “Hallelujah!” But it was an Easter service to remember.
At the rear of the church the minister had pinned two sheets of paper, one to be signed by the “haves”—those who had clothing and household goods to contribute—and one where the homeless could write down what they needed. At least 20 families there that morning had lost everything, yet as we left the church I saw that not one person had signed the “have not” list.
For what was there that we did not have? We had new gratitude for the gift of life and for the fact that, in one of history’s worst earthquakes, loss of life had been as small as it had. We had a state to rebuild with a new love for the word “Alaska” born the night we watched our neighbors rise to heroism. Above all we had the Easter message ringing in our hearts.
For the first Christians, too, lived through a sorrowful Friday, a Friday when their dreams collapsed, their hopes lay in ruins, when by every earthly standard they had lost everything. And then on Sunday morning they were the first to whisper the news that has transformed every loss from that day on, the news that love had won, that God had the final word, that death was overcome, that He had risen.
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