5:30pm, March 27th, 1964. It was a Friday, not just another TGIF, but the real Holy one, Good Friday.  I was babysitting for the reverend’s wife so she could join her husband at a church function marking the occasion.

I was happy because not only was I making 50 cents an hour, but she had taken the baby with her,  leaving me in charge of just the two terrible tots who soiled the house but not their pants.  Karen was in her parents’ room taking a nap and Kevin was prancing around showing off for my buddy Gary who had stopped by after school. Even though I was only 16, I didn’t have to go to school. Being home-schooled, I was free to monopolize the daytime babysitting market.

Gary and I were indulging in our usual discussions on everything we could understand in the Newsweek editorial pages.  I guess Kevin realized his living room gymnastics weren’t drawing our attention away from our Goldwater campaign gossip.

He started in on his usual chant, “I wanna watch TV! My mommy said you have to turn on the TV!”

“But it isn’t even dark out yet.  Wait until it gets dark,” Gary reasoned with the kid.

“No!  I wanna watch the Flintstones! Now!”

Gary, whose six-foot bulk must not have looked so intimidating slouched on the sofa, tried his best to wrestle Kevin off his legs.

“All right, Kevin.  You want the Flintstones, you got the Flintstones,” I conceded as I got off the sofa and headed across the room to the TV set, just hoping it would distract the little monster before Gary lost his cool.

I bent down in front of the screen, reached for the on switch and just as I pulled it, a thundering rumble came rushing from behind me. I pushed the switch back in before the bouncing TV blew up.

“Jesus Christ!  The TV’s gonna blow up!”

“It’s an earthquake!” Gary yelled, grabbing Kevin off his legs and diving out the front door with the kid under his arm screaming bloody murder.

I was just three steps behind them when I remembered Karen was in the bedroom.

“Oh shit! Karen’s back there.”

I did an about face, steadied myself like a sailor in a tempest and headed for the bedroom.  I stepped over a bookcase laying across the back hallway floor, pushed open the door and dove onto the bed on top of Karen.  A tall dresser toppled over behind me and mirror crashed to the floor.  Karen was paralyzed with fear but unharmed.

The roar of the seismic waves had passed through the house and the floor seemed to be heaving in slow motion.  I got up, grabbed Karen in my arms and made my way over the dresser, the bookcase, past the ‘explosive’ TV set and out the door to the promised safety of the broad front lawn where Gary and Kevin were waiting.

“Are you OK?” I think I heard them say, but couldn’t answer.  I just stood there, my knees shaking, staring at a car behind them as it bounced down the road like a vibrating toy. The four of us huddle there together on the front lawn for a brief eternity while the ground found its equilibrium.

As vivid as these memories are I am at a loss to recall anything that happened immediately afterwards.  I know that I made it back to my house and that Gary and the kids were all soon reunited with their families.  No one I knew was hurt.

I do remember seeing our dining room table laden with all my mother’s best Noritake china and Dresden crystal, and the copper and glass chandelier from Berlin swinging threateningly over the table from one of its three brass chains.  She had set the table in advance for her 41st birthday party set for the following day.

Brothers Kim and Craig, little sisters Dina and Nikki and 10-month old Lenne were all safe and sound; though, of course, a little shaken up.

As an Air Force civil engineer I am sure Dad had to go on full alert, but I don’t remember any details.  I do remember that we did not have to go to the designated safe haven but we did have to bring our emergency kits up from the basement ready to go.

That’s my eyewitness report from the housing area on Elmendorf Air Force Base, just a few miles from downtown Anchorage. I would later learn that I had survived The Great Alaska Earthquake, one of the world’s largest recorded seismic events – 8.7 on the Richter Scale, now adjusted to 9.2 on the current standard Moment Magnitude Scale.  In spite of its awesome size, the tremor, subsequent tsunamis and aftershocks resulted in surprisingly little damage and only 131 deaths.

There are a lot of factors that make an earthquake fearsome; the depth of the epicenter, the distance from populated areas, soil conditions, architectural soundness and emergency response.  I compared data on the Alaska Earthquake with recent seismic events in Chile, Haiti, China, Indonesia and Japan and realized that our focus on magnitude is misleading.  Population and poverty – not size – make an earthquake deadly.

I have lived the last 36 years in earthquake prone Japan. Tremors are a common occurrence here and the fear of the next Great Tokai Earthquake is ever present – yet I have a kind of faith in the ability of Japan’s advanced preparedness to protect us from the worst.  And this faith confirms my belief that rather than nature’s wrath, it was human stupidity and greed that are to blame for the atrocious death tolls in Haiti and Indonesia.



HOMEWORK ON HAITI –  Jan 23, 2010