Denali Fault Earthquake, 20 years later
November 1, 2022 | View PDF
Upon feeling a familiar "swirling" motion that Sunday afternoon of Nov. 3, 2002, I left the kitchen and walked to the living room of our Slana home. I'm always a little jumpy during earthquakes, remembering the 1964 quake at age nine. Gary, my husband, agreed he felt it, but continued to sit in his recliner in another room. A few seconds later after a hard jolt, he joined me in the center of the house where there were no windows and many doorframes.
We held on to each other as the jerking and slamming grew more intense and I heard wave after wave of dishes smash to the floor in the kitchen. Because it was hard to stand up and Gary was bouncing around so much, I determinedly reached over and braced myself by holding onto the bathroom doorframe. A few seconds later the (newly purchased and not yet secured) 50-gallon water heater in the bathroom tipped over, slamming the door shut and pinning my hand between the door and the frame.
By this time, I was no longer holding on to Gary, because he had bounced too far away and didn't know my hand was pinned. Another big jolt rocked the water heater the other way, the door opened by itself, and all of the sudden my hand was free. Quickly moving to Gary, he surrounded me with a bear hug. I shut my eyes and prepared for the worst.
Soon I felt warm liquid spattering all over my hand. It hurt so bad, I was afraid several fingertips were gone. When the shaking stopped rather abruptly after about 90 seconds, I remember thinking, We are still alive! Maybe a few fingertips are missing, but we are alive! Then I slowly raised my hand to my face and saw that everything was still attached. The warm liquid I felt was water from the hot water heater. At this point, I went over to the couch, curled up into a ball, and had a short hysterical fit.
Meanwhile, Gary was trying to figure out how to upright the water heater, which was still spraying and leaking hot water all over the bathroom and flooding out into the pile of photographs and books that had come off the shelves. He couldn't open the bathroom door with the water heater jammed up against it. In fact, the water heater had poked out into the hallway where it had broken away part of the solid wood door.
I pulled myself together and called his attention to the oil stove, which had slid over a foot away from the chimney and was still burning. He found the leather gloves and moved the stove back before he went outside to turn the propane off and check the generator. I went around and uprighted all the oil lamps, which were spilling kerosene onto the wood and carpet floors.
Still outside, with the help of a ladder, Gary crawled through the bathroom window, cleaned up enough to get to the water heater and started draining it. I ran upstairs to get a blanket to make a dam so no more books would be damaged. Retrieving a blanket from the nearby bedroom was not possible because I could not bring myself to walk over the foot high pile of photo albums on the floor in the pathway. Fortunately, Gary had attached all the bookshelves to the walls when we moved into our home. I literally threw books away from the half-inch deep puddle and diverted the water down into the cellar.
Once the water heater was emptied enough to upright, we started looking around and decided to take pictures. After changing out of my "Sunday" dress, I turned on the radio for news. Shortly after the quake, I had commented, "If it is this bad here, I can't imagine what the epicenter is like and how many people were killed."
Gary went around the house room by room and took photos with the digital camera. By the time he got to the kitchen - I was still trying to prevent further water damage - he called for me to come look. Walking over debris a foot deep, I tried not to focus on all the pretty amber and green broken glassware. The microwave lay on the floor with the door torn off. It had hit the open (because of the quake) dishwasher on the way down and landed, propping the refrigerator door open.
By this time, an hour had passed and we decided we should call Gary's mom and let her know we were all right. The radio said the epicenter was 90 miles south of Fairbanks, so I tried to call my sister in Tok, but couldn't get through. I figured family members in Cordova, Anchorage and Homer were far enough away that they were probably okay.
We spent a couple of hours working our way across the kitchen floor, trying to salvage the occasional unbroken cup or plate. About 80% of the two sets of everyday dishes were broken and 50% of the other two special occasion sets. All the drinking glasses, most of the coffee mugs and all the McMichael family crest crystal goblets and pitcher were beyond repair. There were broken chunks and glass shards everywhere. Thirty years of collected treasures and gifts, but only material wealth.
We reluctantly had bed and breakfast guests that night. A couple moving from Palmer to the state of Washington stopped to inquire about staying overnight. This was the first day of their trip, it was dark, and they were tired of driving their two heavily loaded vehicles and didn't want to travel the rest of the way to Tok. They didn't know about the earthquake. I politely told the woman no, but she didn't really understand why until I showed her the mess in the kitchen and the boxes of broken glass we had moved to the back porch.
When she and her husband returned an hour later saying that the road was impassable near Mentasta Lodge, and the only other alternative was to sleep in their vehicles, I relented. The wife cleaned the upstairs guestroom and bathroom while the husband helped Gary upright an elderly neighbor's boiler. Then we shared canned soup and grilled cheese sandwiches on the coffee table in the living room where there wasn't as much broken glass. The next morning, they acknowledged that they really didn't sleep well because of all the aftershocks. Neither did we.
When the local K-12 school reopened three days later, I returned to my school aide job. Chistochina School, 30 miles to the south, and Tok School, 65 miles to the north, were not affected. At my sister's home in Tok, a teapot fell off a shelf but didn't break. Our well-built log home suffered no structural damage or broken windows, but there was broken glass in every room in the house. Framed pictures and mirrors slamming against the walls were the culprits in the bedrooms. It took weeks of work to return our house and Gary's out buildings to anything close to normal.
The cut on my left hand healed and the purple bruising eventually disappeared, but my little finger ached for weeks afterward. I decided that next time, I would just hold on to Gary and forget the doorway. There were a few other minor injuries reported in our area and a woman in Mentasta Village broke her arm when she slipped on the ice while exiting her home. But there was no loss of life.
The 7.9 Denali Fault earthquake was not as strong or as long as the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, but it is equally as memorable for me. I'm thankful that the vivid memories have faded over the last 20 years, so much so, that if it wasn't for writing about this event to family and friends in our 2002 Christmas letter, the details of this story would have been forever lost.
Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan currently residing in Palmer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.