Thursday, September 25, 2008

Quake memory provides window to the past

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

When the ground jolted beneath the feet of 18-year-old Dave Hutchings, his gut instinct told him it was an earthquake, but his mind told him it might be a bomb.

Living just north of the military base at Wildwood and immersed in Cold War propaganda throughout his childhood, Hutchings knew the thought wasn’t all that far-fetched. The country had nervously watched the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold only a year and a half earlier, and no state was closer to the Soviet Union than Alaska.

Despite the Communist threat, however, Hutchings decided at the time — 5:36 p.m., Friday, March 27, 1964 — to treat the sudden shaking as a temblor.

Hutchings had stopped at a Chevron station, near Wildwood, after a day of high school in Kenai. After working there part-time, he had been about to head back into town for his second part-time job — cleaning up at a construction site — when the ground began bucking and heaving.

He raced from the garage into the station office and told Stan Bartell what was happening. But Stan had already figured it out, and so had his brother, Danny, and his father, Dan, owner of the station.

“The old man (Dan Bartell), he told us to get out of the building and run out into the open,” Hutchings remembered. “‘Get out in the middle of the highway!’ Because you’re in a service station, and any sparks or whatever and this thing would blow sky-high.”

Then Bartell noted the swaying trees and power lines, and he countermanded his orders: “We need to get away from the telephone poles! Head for the woods!”

“He’s shouting orders left and right,” Hutchings said. “And we’d take two steps and go back one, or you’d fall and gather yourself up and run some more.

“I jumped onto the hood of a car, grabbed hold of the windshield wipers — the blades — and rode it out most of the time right there. And then it bucked me off of there. One of the blades broke off, and I ended up on the ground.”

After nearly five minutes of shaking, the motion of the earth quieted and allowed Hutchings and the Bartells to take stock of their situation.

“It went so fast, but took forever,” Hutchings said.

Back inside the station — where earlier, Hutchings said, “things just started jumping off the shelves” — the garage was a mess, but since no one was injured, their thoughts turned toward town.

Hutchings knew his family was in Kenai already, so he and Stan drove in that direction over the cracked and steaming asphalt that connected the military base to the city. They headed first to the construction site where Hutchings was employed.

Hutchings had spent the previous summer working for a well-known area contractor named Leroy “The Roofer” Knab, described by many as about 5-foot-4, nearly as wide as he was tall, and always seen with three things: a fat stogie around which he carried on conversations, a wide-brimmed red hat with a large golden safety pin in the front, and an English bulldog that could climb a ladder and looked eerily like Knab himself.

Leroy the Roofer had hired Hutchings to help lay the foundation and later put on the roof of George Navarre’s new grocery: Kenai Food Center. At the time the quake struck, the building appeared nearly done on the outside but was largely unfinished on the inside.

In fact, Hutchings said, the electricians were paying him a dollar an hour more than Knab had to clean up each day after they finished pulling wires, so the interior was mostly without Sheetrock. The two large rows of front windows on the highway side of the building had been hefted into their frames and only toenailed temporarily into place.

When Hutchings and Bartell arrived on the scene, one of the first things they noticed was the left window casing — about 25 feet long and containing five vertical thermal-pane windows — had been jarred from its perch and toppled off its sill onto the ground. Fortunately for Navarre, the ground was covered with snow a foot or two thick, and not a single pane of glass had been broken.

The Cheechako News the following week ran numerous earthquake-aftermath photos, and among them was a picture of Hutchings, Bartell and three other men pushing the window casing back into place. Beneath the photo, taken by freelancer Art Sanders, ran this caption: “This glass panel from the front of the new Kenai Food Center miraculously escaped breakage when it toppled over.”

Damage elsewhere in the Kenai-Soldotna area was not as extensive as in Anchorage and several coastal communities. Although many Kenai residents feared that a tsunami might crash into their shores, the big wave never arrived.

For Hutchings, the frenetic activity at the Chevron and the fact that he later reunited with his family and discovered they were safe stood out most about that day.

In fact, he said, he probably would not even recall the incident of the window if it weren’t for two things: first, the appearance of his photo in the newspaper, and second, the fact that today, 44 years later, those five windows are still intact and can be seen by customers who glance to the left as they enter Paradisos Restaurant.

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