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52 years later: Alaskans remember devastation of 1964 earthquake

By KTVA CBS 11 News 4:50 PM March 27, 2016
ANCHORAGE –

More than 100 people died on March 27, 1964 during the magnitude 9.2 earthquake and ensuing tsunamis, which devastated coastal communities in southcentral Alaska. Fifty-two years later, survivors recounted the terrifying moments during the quake and its aftermath.

The tremors of the earthquake were first recorded at 5:36 p.m., 55 miles west of Valdez, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center. Nine deaths in Alaska occurred in connection with the earthquake, but 106 Alaskans were killed shortly after when large waves rushed coastal communities, destroying some, like Chenega.

In Chenega, more than 20 lives were lost and the village considered destroyed after three large waves, according to the Chenega Corporation. In Valdez, 32 people, many of whom were at the docks when the tsunamis struck, including children, were killed. A video captured aboard a boat docked in Valdez shows the sudden draining of the port and the resurgence of the water as the first tsunami struck.

Others living in western states and Hawaii and along the west coast of Canada also died, bringing the estimated total number of deaths associated with the earthquake and tsunamis to just over 130.

‘We couldn’t walk’

Mark Boots, now 58, was 6-years-old when the earthquake struck. At the time, he and his family lived in the Turnagain area of Anchorage. He told KTVA he remembered thinking it was “quite fun” for a kid, until he saw the destruction outside.

“You couldn’t walk, but it was still fun, until you saw the houses at the end of the street drop off, and then you knew there was something wrong,” he recalled. “After the devastation, it was just unbelievable.”

Boots said none of his family was hurt during the quake, including one of his brothers, who he said slept right through the shaking. Boots said others weren’t so lucky.

“I remember hearing the stories hours later when [my mom] finally did get home,” Boots said, explaining what happened to his mother as she left J.C. Penney’s in downtown Anchorage during the earthquake. “Hearing the stories of her holding onto a parking meter, trying to get into her car, and turning around and watching the side of Penney’s, where she’d just walked out of, come down and land on a car, and I guess the lady that was in the car died.”

The JC Penney building in the days following the 1964 earthquake

The JC Penney building in the days following the 1964 earthquake

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker was also alive during the earthquake, and said in a Facebook post Sunday that his family’s business in Valdez was hit hard by the disaster:

“March 27, 1964 is a day that will live in my memory forever. Our small town of Valdez lost over 30 friends and neighbors. All the material for my family’s business was lost that day. Alaskans pulled together to bury our loved ones, rebuild our communities and forge a path forward for our state. In these tough fiscal times, it is important to remember that this historic demonstration of the true spirit of the Last Frontier which provides an enduring and inspiring example to us today.”

On Friday, Walker ordered all Alaska flags to be lowered to remember the 115 Alaskans who died during the earthquake and tsunamis.

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