The Good Friday earthquake of March 27, 1964, is a milestone in Alaskan history. The 4 minute, 32 second 9.2 megathrust devastated communities within the perimeter of a 600-mile fault line and remains the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded. The damage done to Seward, not just by the quake itself but by the ensuing tsunami and fires, has since become the stuff of legend. Yet it remains a very real memory to those who lived through it. Though many have since moved away or passed on, many eyewitnesses to the 1964 cataclysm still call Seward home. One resident recalled her experience in vivid detail.
The early evening of Good Friday 1964 found Sue McClure at home with her family. An eighth grader, McClure had recently turned 14. Her father was a longshoreman who had been released from work several hours early for the holiday weekend. Her four-year-old brother was watching Seward’s only television channel on the family’s new TV. McClure was seated at the kitchen table as her mother prepared dinner. The table then began to shake.
“I look out the window and saw Mt. Marathon there, and I was assuming it was a volcano and we were going to get covered with lava,” McClure said. “That was my initial fear, which is silly, but I talked to other kids that felt the same. We must’ve been studying something related to that.”
Cups and glassware fell from shelves and shattered as their home continued to tremble.
“I also remember seeing the power poles bending back and forth,” McClure said, “which was just freaky.”
McClure clung to the table for four and a half minutes, until the shaking subsided. She then rose and emerged from the kitchen to what she described as an eerie silence.
“My dad looks out the window to the south and saw the fire,” she said. “The oil fuel storage tanks around the edges caught on fire. And so this huge, huge fire — black smoke — there’s this fire. My dad was on the volunteer fire department, always worried about fire, and he said, ‘We’ve got to get out of here. The town is going to burn.’”
McClure ran into the bedroom she shared with her brother to fetch him some clothes for the journey. She discovered her pet guppies, flung from the safety of their bowl. She then met her parents and brother in the family car, and they joined the parade of motorists in their northward exodus. It was then she recalled seeing the waves.
“I don’t believe it was the tsunami at the time,” she said. “I think it was the seiche waves we had from all the subsidence, but in any event, we had waves. Everybody was yelling, ‘Tidal wave!’”
The family continued north until they reached a bridge, which they discovered had fallen, uncrossable. At the bridge McClure saw her school friend among the stopped cars. The girl’s mother then left her and her siblings with McClure’s family in order to return downtown, back into the chaos, to assist her husband, a town doctor.
With the doctor’s children in tow, McClure and her family now made for the safety of the doctor’s house, near the present site of Windsong Lodge. After searching for a safe crossing over the frozen river, they were eventually ferried across in a pickup truck. On finally arriving at the doctor’s house, they found it with no water or electricity. McClure’s father lit a fire in the fireplace, and the family huddled around a small transistor radio to listen for news from town.
“We were hearing the word from Anchorage stations that Anchorage was devastated and the city of Seward was burnt to the ground, and we believed it,” McClure recalled. “That was one of the more traumatic things, because all we could see if we looked outside was, the sky was red from the flames. We thought our home was burning.”
McClure passed the night telling her brother stories by the fire. Ham radio reports from local radio operators assured the family that the town had in fact not burned, that the fires were confined to the waterfront area. McClure would credit these reports with her own adoption of the ham radio hobby later in life.
After two nights the family returned to their home, which they found still standing, but the destruction around it was dumbfounding.
“It was just complete devastation,” McClure said. “You just can’t imagine what Seward was like before with all the docks, and then to see everything gone. It was grey. Things were still burning when we came back in, or smoldering, but there was so much soot that even the little birds — I remember little chickadees and stuff — they were grey. Everything was grey.”
It was now Easter Sunday, and though the family would be without power, water or sewer for some time, their wood-burning stove was still able to provide heat.
“I remember our big Easter celebration was eating the ice cream that was in our freezer because it was melting and there hadn’t been power. It was like a big deal, my brother and I, we ate ice cream.”
The ensuing days proved difficult. No water or sewer meant showers were impossible, and sanitation amounted to little more than daily honey bucket pickup. Water from First Lake was treated with Clorox and distributed for consumption, supplemented by water from toilet tanks and hot water heaters. Both the hospital and high school were opened for those who lost their homes.
McClure’s family survived off their stock of canned goods. Her father, formerly a longshoreman, lost his place of employment in the tsunami, but he was able to earn a living helping to rebuild the city.
“He was skilled,” McClure said. “He used to tell me he made more money after the earthquake for those few weeks than he ever had in his life, because he could operate heavy equipment, so he was helping rebuild bridges and the sewers and I don’t know what all.”
Another major change in the wake of the catastrophe was the City’s first implementation of a tsunami warning system.
“Instead of sirens and stuff, a guy would drive around in a truck with a loudspeaker, saying, ‘Tidal wave warning! Tidal wave warning!’” McClure recalled.
In remembrance of the events of Good Friday, 1964, Governor Mike Dunleavy has declared this week Tsunami Preparedness Week. For more information on tsunami preparedness, visit ready.gov/tsunamis.
Sue McClure is now a respected member of the Seward City Council and president of the Resurrection Bay Historical Society. She recalls that she returned to the eighth grade less than two weeks after the events of March 27. In class she would write an essay about her experience which concluded thusly: “For the next few days we stayed at home and slowly recovered from the shock. On April 8, I went back to school, and from then on, nothing fantastic has happened.”