Jerry Summers of Central Point holds a Life magazine photo of his Anchorage, Alaska, neighborhood following the 1964 Great Alaskan Earthquake. - Bob Pennell

Escape from the Great Alaskan Earthquake

Jerry Summers noticed the quiet first.

It smothered all the usual sounds of a typical Alaskan evening: bird chirps and dog barks, the yells of children playing, the occasional honks of car horns in downtown Anchorage.

It was 5:36 p.m. on March 27, 1964, seconds before the silence was shattered and the still terrain around 10-year-old Summers' feet opened up.

"We noticed that the neighborhood was starting to crumble. Trees were starting to fall. The neighbors across the street, their houses were starting to fall off the cliff into the ocean," says Summers, now 60 and living in Central Point. "These houses were falling, plummeting over the side. We noticed that the ground was breaking and coming toward us across the street."

The U.S. Geological Survey would come to call this event the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964, 9.2 in magnitude and the greatest U.S. earthquake ever recorded.

The event's 50th anniversary is today.

In the minutes before the earthquake began, Summers and his 12-year-old sister, Marjie, had been enjoying a day off from school. It was Good Friday, and they'd just arrived home from a community showing of the movie "Treasure Island."

The pair played in the bed of an old pickup truck in their yard, parked in the concrete foundation of a garage the family was building.

Summers lived on the Knik Arm of the Cook Inlet, close to a bluff's edge. He could throw biscuit crumbs to meandering seagulls. Mount McKinley rose in the distance. Boats heading for the Port of Anchorage glided up the channel regularly.

"You could see for miles. You could see for days out there," Summers says. "It was the premiere subdivision that had this awesome view."

The earthquake broke the scene's tranquility, starting with the eerie, sudden quiet. Then the ground shivered, thrashed. Brother and sister jumped down from their makeshift jungle gym and started running toward their house to get their mother. The truck began to dance behind them.

"The truck was in gear with the brake on, but yet it continued to bounce forward and back," Summers says.

The siblings ran to the door of their house and took stock of the seeming cave-in happening around them. Mouths opened in the earth and started to swallow trees, houses and cars. The door stuck at first, but eventually popped open. Summers' mother, Juanita, came running out. A Cub Scout den leader, she'd been spared from the usual crowd of young men that occupied her house that day because of the religious holiday.

"It was a really good thing she did, otherwise she'd have had a dozen young boys there to deal with in that mess," Summers says. "Luckily it was only the two of us, one for each hand."

The trio ran. They followed their driveway toward a nearby vacant field, feet slapping on the terrain as the earth fractured and fell behind them.

The chaos caught up to them at the end of the driveway.

"Seven square miles of land just dropped in front of us, just plummeted 40 feet," Summers says. "Just ... poof."

The three backed up and watched as more large pieces of land broke off and plunged into the hole. They ran the other way, struggling to keep their balance as telephone poles and trees collapsed around them. An opus of angry sounds — shearing wood, crushing concrete and the shrieks of twisting metal — bellowed on all sides.

Summers' house caved in, the set of encyclopedias he'd just gotten that past Christmas trapped inside. Summers, his mother and sister continued running toward a wooded lot. Their mother fell into a hole. Her children grabbed hold and pulled her to safety.

"We weren't going to lose Mom that day," Summers says.

The safe haven they had hoped for at the lot had transformed from a solid piece of terrain to a tiny island surrounded on all sides by a sea of earth fragments and miniature, just-formed canyons. Summers suspects the roots of several trees held their saving grace intact.

"We were on a little island of our own, yes," Summers says. "Watching an entire neighborhood crumble and houses fall over the cliff."

He also watched his neighbors scramble to safety. Some joined them, sprinting through the sudden minefield to the little knoll and scrambling up top. One woman asked Summers whether he'd ever been baptized. He had not. The woman scooped up some snow, melted and blessed the cool water.

"She was going to baptize us to make sure we went to heaven if we died in this whole melee," Summers says.

Summers asked his mother several times whether it was the end of the world. She reassured him it was not.

"I looked at the sky," Summers says. "The sky was perfectly fine. There was nothing going wrong there, so I guessed it wasn't the end of the world. It was as I knew it. I'd just lost my brand new encyclopedias. It was the end of the world to me. My bicycles, my toys, everything was crumbling and being swallowed up by the earth."

Despite his brief glances at the world around him, Summers says he had tunnel vision. So did everyone else.

"No one was looking for anybody or anything, they were just looking at what might fall on them or what they might fall into," he says.

Several aftershocks lurched past. Summers thought the chaos was starting all over again each time.

"The next thing I expected was lava to come bubbling out of the ground," he says.

But it didn't. The aftershocks calmed down, and neighbors began to come out of hiding. Everyone nearby seemed to have survived. A crack had scissored its way down the middle of Summers' island. Everyone on it hovered over it, trying to anticipate the eventual break and the need to jump to one side or the other.

Summers' father, Ellis — or "Bud," as friends called him — showed up after about 15 minutes. The slam of their car door, a 1961 Pontiac, alerted Summers to his arrival.

"You knew that door slam," Summers says. "I go, 'That's our car.' Sure enough, we saw our dad trying to make his way down."

Summers watched his father stop at the edge of the cliff. He scanned for his home and saw it, a mess of debris that had fallen into a hole.

"He freaked. He fell to his knees and started crying, yelling, 'Oh my God. My God," Summers says. "That just tore me up, to see my dad fall down and cry."

Summers and his family got his attention. He ran back to town to get help. Helicopters flew over in an initial attempt to rescue survivors, but responders scrapped that idea quickly. There was still too much loose debris.

The fire department arrived after two hours. Firefighters led people out by laying ladders over the crevices. Then, untethered, Summers, his family and other neighbors crawled across the rungs to safety.

"There was no safety rope," Summers says. "It was, 'Here, lay it out, crawl across it, don't fall off.'"

Summers and his family made it. They stayed with a friend that night, alive and unhurt. Anchorage and other damaged coastal hamlets nearby began the long, slow process of recovery.

Residents went without water, sewer or power services for weeks. Water had to be boiled. Roads were unusable. Sewage had to be stored in 55-gallon drums and transported to a treatment facility.

"That was the worst thing ever," Summers says.

The USGS reports the quake and subsequent tsunamis claimed 129 lives. Agency data shows the quake's initial shock lasted three to four minutes and shredded 30 blocks of homes, schools and other commercial buildings in Anchorage. More than 185,000 square miles of surrounding terrain were disrupted, causing numerous landslides and turning the ground into a demented plat of cracks and crevasses. A tsunami pulsed out from the epicenter. Huge waves hurled into numerous coastlines as far away as Oregon and California. More than $2 billion damage — in 2013 value — was reported.

A schoolmate of Summers did not survive. He had been running back inside his home to save two of his siblings when the house collapsed and fell over the cliff. Summers did not lose any family.

Eventually, the family moved into a new rental, located farther from the coast and closer to town. His family salvaged what belongings they could from their home, but essentially had to start over. Looters swept through the wasteland, picking through the rubble and forcing police to patrol the damaged neighborhoods.

"We didn't get much. We lost an awful lot of stuff, it all got swallowed up," Summers says. "And then they bladed it all over."

The damage, loss of life and quake's abrupt arrival prompted studies into the nature of plate tectonics, or the idea that Earth is divided into major sections — or plates — that move and sometimes converge on their boundaries.

"The 1964 earthquake was giant because of the large area of the fault that slipped during the earthquake and the large amount of slip, or relative motion, between opposite sides of the earthquake fault," a USGS report reads.

Summers says he recovered emotionally fairly quickly. His sister, now living in New Mexico, remained terrified of earthquakes, even though smaller ones were a regular occurrence.

Summers moved to the Rogue Valley in the late 1980s. The most violent quake in U.S. history is now a memory, a crystal clear one.

"(It's) as vivid as if it was yesterday. Maybe that's my most vivid memory, I don't know," Summers says. "I haven't lost a bit of it. I remember every footstep, everything I went through."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at

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