Earthquake reflections, from the outskirts of Anchorage


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Back in 1964 before the earthquake hit, before anyone envisioned that Good Friday would go down in history not so much as a religious holiday as a destructive, deadly reminder of the earth’s fickleness, Ethel Breese was living in Anchorage, on the outskirts of the city around where Lake Otis Parkway and Tudor Road area exists today.

Back then Breese, who is today employed as finance director at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center, was 25 years-old and working for the military exchange service. She was out on Elmendorf Air Force Base the day of the quake, shopping at the Basic Exchange (BX) for an iron.

“They had just remodeled (the store) and I was taking an iron down from the shelf when it fell. I picked it up and another one fell, and then they all started falling,” she said.

That’s when she realized that something was happening, something large and infallible, something that she might not ever be able to turn back from.

“Everyone panicked and started running toward the exit,” she said. “The first instinct was to leave the building.”

They had to run past the cash register lane to reach the doors.

“There was a lady there who had a baby about four months old and she panicked and screamed and dropped the baby.”

Outside, the cars bounced up and down.

“It was like the ground was waving, like it was the ocean.”

It went on a long time. Too long.

“We didn’t know when it would end. You thought it was never going to stop. You thought, this is the end and the earth is going to open up.”

She didn’t think they would make it. But then the earth finally stopped shaking.

“And was even more scared. I heard the tidal wave was coming and you didn’t know if you were in a safe place.”

The only thing she could think of was getting home.

“That was your goal, you just wanted to be at home. You didn’t want to stop. You wanted to keep moving. It’s the only way you felt safe.”

When she finally arrived home, Breese’s husband was outside with her father.

“We lost all power except the phone. It was out for 10 days. We didn’t know what to expect.”

The aftershocks lasted for weeks.

“Everyone was terrified.”

That terror didn’t let up easily, either.

“One lady at work left Alaska because of it,” she said. “She just didn’t feel safe.”

Breese’s family took in another family with five children. They cooked on a propane stove and kept the fireplace going to heat the house. Each day a truck would drive around distributing water.

“You did what you had to do,” she said. “You were in survival mode.”

After things had settled down, Breese and her family drove down the Seward Highway.

“On the right-hand side there were cabins and they had sunk down, it was now covered with water and it was inhabitable. It was traumatic. I thought, it’s going to get better, the ground is going to fix itself. But of course that didn’t happened.”

The quake has left Breese with daily appreciation for life, yes, but also an odd paranoia of elevators.

“Whenever I get on an elevator I think of the earthquake and what I’d do if I were inside when one hit.”

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