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50th anniversary of great quake looms

By Lauren Maxwell 5:47 AM February 12, 2014

Many Alaskans have vivid memories of the Good Friday Earthquake

ANCHORAGE – It is a date that will mark Alaska forever in the history books: On March 27,1964 Alaska experienced the second largest earthquake ever recorded.

The 9.2 shaker toppled buildings, uprooted homes and left deep cracks in the ground. One hundred and thirty people died, but many more survived with a story to tell.

Nancy Bidwell is one of them. Bidwell was a 17-year-old senior at West High School the day the earthquake struck. That Good Friday afternoon she headed downtown to meet her boyfriend on Anchorage’s 4th Avenue.

“I remember hitting the ground,” Bidwell said. “We couldn’t stand up. It was like ocean waves.”

Bidwell said she and her boyfriend grabbed a parking meter and hung on for dear life.

“Then we let go of those and ran out into the middle of the intersection and hung on to the fins of a ’59 Cadillac,” she said.

Bidwell and her boyfriend rode out the quake staring straight ahead, and what they saw was frightening: five blocks on the north side of 4th Avenue, sinking into the ground.

“So we are seeing all these buildings collapsing and cars parked and then all of a sudden they’re gone,” Bidwell said. “It was terrifying because you think it’s coming right up the street and you’re next!”

Bidwell was spared, but barely. Moments before she’d met her boyfriend she’d been shopping at the J.C. Penney store on 5th Avenue.

That was the scene of some of the worst destruction of all.

The five-story building was a total loss. Amazingly, only two people died, a man on the street and a woman driving by in her car who was crushed by falling debris.

Bidwell would like to say the worst of her earthquake experience was over at that point, but it wasn’t. For three days she couldn’t get back to her Turnagain neighborhood to find out if her family was alive.

Many of the homes on the bluff were destroyed when the ground gave out beneath them. But Bidwell was lucky; her family was safe a block away.

Bidwell has photos of the crack in her back yard big enough for her father to put his arm in. And she has memories of many more scenes that happened in the days that followed. Mostly, she said she feels gratitude to have survived the quake and be able to reflect on an event that changed Alaska 50 years ago.

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