Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Towering memories — Mystery plaque shakes up story of ’64 quake
By Clark Fair
In the early 1980s, friends of Jean McMaster were tearing down the lean-to attached to the back of her log-cabin dance studio near Kenai when they came across an old brass plaque hanging on the wall in a room that had been used for radio-dispatch calls to the Kenai volunteer fire department. The rectangular plaque had grind marks on each corner, as if bolts holding it in place had been sheared off to remove it.
Stamped into the metal was the name of the manufacturer: the Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Co. And below that were four lines of data: Whatever the plaque had been attached to had been erected in 1952 and had a capacity of 150,000 gallons. Its “upper capacity level” was 147 feet, 6 inches, while its “lower capacity level” was 120 feet, 2 inches.
Longtime area educator, Gene Morin, whose daughter and son-in-law, Chris and Britton Cook, had been helping tear down the lean-to, realized what the plaque was, and Morin thought he knew who might like to have it.
Back on Good Friday, March 27, 1964, Clayton Brockel, the 37-year-old director of adult education and recently appointed director of the new Kenai Peninsula Community College, had just finished another day of work and was planning to wind down. He climbed into his 1960 white, two-door Chevy Corvair and headed west out of Kenai toward the Wildwood Army Station, where he was a civilian regular at the Friday evening social hour.
He arrived in front of the Officers Club at approximately 5:30 p.m., parked in front of a 4-by-4 post supporting an electrical plug-in, and strolled inside. The Officers Club consisted of three stories —upstairs quarters, a downstairs mess hall and a basement bar and social area. Brockel walked in through the front door and headed down.
“I walked in, and I recall that someone said he wanted me to meet this new officer,” said Brockel, now 82. “So we shook hands, and, about the same time that we shook hands, the earthquake started.”
It was 5:36 p.m.
The epicenter of the quake, which would become known as the most powerful ever recorded in North America, was about 80 miles east of Anchorage. From its focus deep inside the earth, surface waves were generated that rippled through communities, fracturing foundations and warping the ground so that trees tipped wildly in the undulations.
At Wildwood Station, the Army’s red-and-white water tower was easily the tallest structure, rising nearly 14 stories above the low buildings and gridlike network of roads on the base. It stood directly across a narrow road from the Officers Club, about 200 feet away.
When the surface waves reached the base, they caused the tower’s huge reservoir, containing more than a million pounds of water, to rock back and forth like the more-limber trees. The waves destabilized the tower, and the entire structure came crashing to the ground.
The concussive force of water and air shot outward from the point of impact, driving the back window of Brockel’s car through the vehicle, smashing out the front windshield as it exited. The driver’s-side door bulged and bowed under the pressure as glass fragments littered the Corvair’s interior and embedded themselves in the back of the front seat. The car itself was slammed through the 4-by-4 post and shoved up onto the snow-covered lawn of the Officers Club.
Inside, no one was sure at first what was going on.
“We couldn’t move in the basement,” Brockel said. “It was shaking that bad. We had to wait until it was over. We were hanging on to anything we could hang on to.” And then the tower fell.
A huge booming sound could be heard inside, and the impact of the tower striking the ground could be felt throughout the building. The high windows on the tower-side wall of the basement were blown inward, and water began surging in through the vacant window frames.
“The lights went out in the club, and the emergency lights came on,” Brockel said. “And someone said, ‘My God, it must be a bomb!’ Because we couldn’t see anything. We couldn’t see outside.”
Outside, across Alaska, devastation was being wrought. Parts of downtown Anchorage were being reduced to rubble. Ocean waves were being generated that would kill dozens of people in Southcentral coastal communities, and the death toll statewide would rise above 100. Vibrations from the quake would be felt over a land area of more than a million square miles, and quake-generated ocean waves would affect communities as far away as northern California.
In the Officers Club, one young officer had left his room and headed downstairs for social hour just before the quake struck, Brockel said. In the violent shaking in the stairwell, he lost his balance, toppled downward and broke his arm. It was the only serious injury to anyone on the base.
“As soon as the ground stopped shaking, we evacuated the building, and when we walked out, we were walking in water,” Brockel said. “I was scared.”
Outside, the evacuating officers and civilians immediately noticed the fallen tower and realized that no bomb had struck the base. Brockel just stood there with the others, stunned by the destruction, and astonished at the fate of his car.
The first human voice that he said he remembers hearing after leaving the Officers Club contained a message of doom. A terrified civilian, who had been on duty at the power plant just down the road, raced around a corner and into view.
“It’s all over!” he screamed. “Wildwood is gone!” Fortunately, he was incorrect.
Brockel eyeballed his vehicle and wondered whether it would even start. He tried his luck, pulling open the damaged door and climbing in. He inserted the key, and the engine turned over. Lacking both a front and back window, he drove to his home on Walker Lane in Kenai.
“It was cold,” he said. “It was awful cold.”
The Corvair wound up in a lot behind Ingram’s Garage in Soldotna. “I parked it back there. I believe it was totaled,” Brockel said.
As a consolation, he purchased a 1963 Chevy Biscayne, named it “Old Blue,” and drove it for many years while he was the director of the college.
But the aftereffects of the Good Friday earthquake didn’t end with his car.
“I was teaching then, as well as being the adult education director,” Brockel said. “I was teaching at the Kenai School, on the second floor of that building, and when I went to school Monday morning, I noticed that one of my students was missing.”
The missing student was Larry Damon, son of Frances Damon, who was the daughter of Clarence and Anna Goodrich, who would later make a generous land contribution to the community college. Both Larry and Frances Damon had been in Whittier at the time of the quake, and both were killed by an ocean wave.
The quake also affected Brockel psychologically.
“I was pretty well shaken up by that,” he said. “I recall that I did not like to go into any building that was over two stories high. Like, if I were to go into Anchorage on business, I was going to stay in a motel. I would never stay in a high-rise. And I wouldn’t stay above the second floor.”
For months after March 27, he also suffered momentary dizzy spells if he experienced any vibrations akin to those in the quake. At school, when kids would walk in front of his desk, the trembling sometimes would upset him.
“The damn floor would vibrate,” he said. “And it was the same vibration as the earthquake, and I would momentarily have a dizzy spell.”
Certain elevators in Anchorage had the same effect, and Brockel began to wonder if he was going crazy, until he overheard someone else describing the same phenomenon.
Eventually, Brockel resumed his attendance at social hour in the Officers Club, but things were never the same. Parking his Biscayne might remind him of how close he had been to still being inside the Corvair when the quake hit. “I don’t know what damage would have been done to my neck and head,” he said. “I’ve often wondered about that. I’m glad I’ll never find out.”
And he remembers the next time he saw the officer to whom he’d just been introduced that day. “I said, ‘Remind me not to shake hands with you again.’ And we both laughed,” Brockel said.
During the cleanup effort that followed the tower’s collapse, one of the civilian contractors hired to help was Carl Haller, who was then married to Jean McMaster. Brockel suspects that Haller came across the section of tower containing the plaque and decided to keep it, so he detached it and took it home.
Nearly 20 years later, long after Haller and McMaster had divorced, the plaque, along with a scattered assortment of other mementos and old papers, was still hanging on the wall of the radio-dispatch room when demolition time arrived.
Gene Morin, who had retired and was visiting that summer from his home Outside, looked at the plaque and thought of Brockel, who was pleased to receive it.
“I thought that was pretty neat,” he said. “That water tower became a pretty important factor to me after the earthquake.”
Brockel’s friend, Martin Breitenfeld, made a wooden frame and used brass screws to affix the plaque to the backing. Beneath the plaque he attached a label: “GOOD FRIDAY EARTHQUAKE 1964, Wildwood Station, Alaska.”
That’s all the reminder Clayton Brockel needs these days.