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Tsunami anniversary brings chilling memories for Central Point resident

Tsunami anniversary brings chilling memories for Central Point resident

Friday night passed without most of us giving it much thought, other than heaving a sigh of relief that the weekend was nigh.

But it quite literally brought a wave of memories to Janet "Jan" Ames, 74, of Central Point.

Frightening memories.

Her family survived the Good Friday tsunami which slammed into Crescent City on March 27, 1964, killing at least 11 people in that small fishing and logging community.

"It was a really bad experience, something you never forget," she recalls, later adding, "We loved that little town."

The monster tsunami was triggered by the 8.6-magnitude earthquake which struck at 5:36 p.m. that evening under Alaska's Prince William Sound. The quake and tsunami claimed 128 lives from Anchorage to Crescent City, including five along the Oregon Coast.

Traveling at roughly 500 miles an hour, the tsunami raced southward, hitting the Oregon Coast some four hours after the quake. In Crescent City, the first two waves were small, followed by a third one — half an hour after the second — which was 16 feet over the low tide line, and a fourth that slammed in at 25 feet high.

Talented Ashland writer Dennis M. Powers captured Crescent City's ordeal in his well-researched 2005 book, "Raging Seas: The Powerful Account of the Worst Tsunami in U.S. History."

As a result of the horrific destruction caused by the tsunami, April is now Earthquake and Tsunami Awareness Month in Oregon. The state will team with the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to hold tsunami preparedness workshops in seven south coast communities, beginning April 4 in Brookings.

There was no such thing back in 1964, not even a tsunami warning system now in place along the coast.

Jan and her late husband, Herbert "Bert" Ames, and their five children lived in Crescent City, away from the waterfront.

But the family's appliance store, the Bob Ames Company, sat on Second Street, right in the tsunami's path. Named for family patriarch Robert Ames, the store was operated by Robert and his two sons, Bert and Robert Jr. The family were longtime Crescent City residents.

"They had gotten a call there was a 'slight' tsunami," Jan says. "They had them before. So they went down to the store to put things up to reduce the water damage."

Joining them were Robert Jr.'s two boys and two of their young friends.

In addition to appliances, including TV sets, the store had a repair department and sold outdoor goods. At the front of the two-story building were plate glass windows reaching nearly down to the floor.

While the adults were busy working inside, the youngsters waited outside in the company van.

"As they were picking things up, Bert looked out and saw the water climbing up the plate glass windows," Jan continues. "He was the last one running up the stairs, water lapping at his feet."

Once upstairs, they quickly knocked a hole in the outside wall to gain access to the second-story landing. Meanwhile, the boys had climbed up on the van.

"As the water was taking the van down the alley way, Robert and Bert yelled for the boys to jump up on the building," she says, noting they all made it to safety, although one boy nearly got swept away in the dark, roiling water.

Others were not so fortunate.

"When they were out on the landing, they saw a car floating past with two people in it," she says. "They could see them with a flashlight."

But there was nothing they could do to help.

Back up at their home, Jan and the children waited as the agonizing minutes ticked away. The power was knocked out in much of the town.

"We didn't know if they were still alive or what," she says of her loved ones down at the store.

But these folks were made of stout stuff. As soon as the water began to recede, they headed for dry ground.

"They didn't know if there was going to be another one so they jumped in — the water was about four-feet deep at that point," she says. "They waded up past Fourth Street before they got out of it.

"My husband said he needed a cigarette after that," she adds with a laugh, noting they had just kicked the habit. They would later quit for good, she notes.

When the ocean did recede, they found the store had been liquidated by six feet of water, so to speak.

"There wasn't much that wasn't ruined," she says of their stock. "There was even a house sitting in our parking lot. Cars were piled on top of each other."

Yet Jan will tell you they were fortunate, considering that others who had lost loved ones.

The Ames family rebuilt their business, although they used the building as a service department and outdoor store. The appliance store was moved up to Third Street, a few blocks farther from the ocean.

"I always think about it," she says of the tsunami's anniversary. "It's something you can never really forget."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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