When A Record Quake Struck Alaska, One Small Church Survived

Two residents of Old Harbor, Alaska, recall the 9.2 earthquake that devastated the town 50 years ago Thursday. It remains the largest recorded earthquake in North America and the second in the world.

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Fifty years ago today, the most powerful recorded earthquake in North American history struck Alaska. The quake, which measured 9.2 on the Richter scale, was also the second largest in recorded history. The trembler and the ensuing tsunami resulted in 30 deaths and caused massive destruction, including landslides that destroyed scores of city blocks in Anchorage.

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On Kodiak Island, almost all of the native villages were wiped out, including the village of Old Harbor. But amidst the devastation there, one structure survived. Old Harbor resident Mary Haakanson and Father Gregory Parker, the pastor of Three Saints Russian Orthodox Church, tell the story of what's known as the Good Friday miracle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: On a pleasant afternoon March 27th, 1964; Good Friday, as a matter of fact...

MARY HAAKANSON: We were just sitting down to eat dinner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: Then at 5:36, a dozen miles deep, under the mountains north of Prince William Sound, the earth shivers, begins to move.

HAAKANSON: It was really strong. You could hear the church bell ringing and smokestacks were falling, and it was scary. My husband wasn't here. He went down to get some lumber for the coffee shop we were going to build. And I was there with the girls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: Suddenly, the whole harbor of Valdez is sucked dry.

GREGORY PARKER: All the water went out and they could see the ocean floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: Out in the Gulf of Alaska, the ocean bottom seems to sink.

HAAKANSON: The whole bay was dry. This whole bay - I never knew there were so many rocks out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: Then heaves upward 50 feet, sending a giant wave towards shore.

HAAKANSON: So somebody called and said, get up to the hill, there's tidal wave. So I just took the girls, ran up the hill, and we stayed there all night.

PARKER: And the flood came in, the waters came in and then the back surge. Most everything was sucked out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Small, outlying villages all on Kodiak Island were almost completely destroyed. Only a handful of houses remained. Houses still intact were driven miles across the water.

HAAKANSON: I didn't watch it. I was with the girls. I was hanging onto them so they won't get cold. We just had to cuddle up together.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: And then, all over Alaska, as suddenly as it had come, it was gone.

(CHURCH BELL TOLLING)

HAAKANSON: I was six months pregnant when I took the girls up there with me. I lost the baby. The next day, they went down. They said, we're not going to leave until we clean the church. So they went down there to clean it. Not a candle fell, nothing - it was clean the way we left it.

PARKER: (Singing) When there was a great tidal wave, you caused the stormy seas to cease by your prayers before the icon of the Mother of God, saying, the water shall not go beyond this line...

You go to places where they're iron and concrete structures, and they're all twisted up and destroyed. But this humble, wooden church with a very strong foundation, it survived that tsunami.

(Singing) The water shall not go beyond this line. Therefore, we sing to you thus...

That's a story that the Orthodox across the world talk about, especially in North America - and with a little bit of bragging rights, too. The Baptists were wiped out. This church survived. This church stood.

CHURCH CONGREGATION: (Singing) Rejoice, wondrous pacifier of the waters.

HAAKANSON: We were in Kodiak for a while, then they shipped us to Anchorage. And we were there until May.

PARKER: You know, Sven Haakanson Sr., Mary's husband, it was his vision in particular that they weren't going to abandon Old Harbor because this church remained standing.

HAAKANSON: My husband said we're coming back. Our church is here. We're coming back with our people.

PARKER: They wanted to maintain what they had and what they had wasn't in material things. What they had was their faith in God and their subsistence culture and the will to just keep trudging along even in the face of all that devastation.

CHURCH CONGREGATION: (Singing) Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

HAAKANSON: (Foreign language spoken) God was watching over us.

SIEGEL: Mary Haakanson and Father Gregory Parker of Old Harbor, Alaska. They were remembering the 1964 earthquake and tsunami that struck 50 years ago today. Our story was produced by Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister of Long Haul Productions.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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