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Seattle quake: Waiting on big one

During the 1965 earthquake, falling bricks flattened the roof and trapped a man in a car on First Avenue South. Credit: MOHAI Seattle P-I Collection

The earthquake in Nepal is a jolting reminder of our own vulnerabilities.

Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the 6.5 earthquake that rocked Seattle at 8:29 on the morning of April 29, 1965.

There are few things that stamp the memory so clearly with a “you-remember-where-you-were” moment — deaths, acts of war, and earthquakes are among them. Until the Nisqually quake of 2001, for a generation of Seattleites, 1965 was one of those moments.

It was the dawn of our regional earthquake consciousness. Just one year previous, in March, 1964, a massive 9.2 quake had rocked Alaska and triggered a tsunami the brushed the coast of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and killed 16 in Oregon and California. The TV images of the devastation in Anchorage made a deep impression on all of us here in Alaska’s “gateway.”

Growing up in Seattle, I’d heard quake stories. My father had ridden out the 1949 quake at a hospital where he was scrubbing for surgery. The doctor next to him jumped into the scrub sink to ride out the quake. Afterward, my dad asked him why he’d done that and the doctor said that’d he seen buildings leveled by an earthquake in the Philippines where the only thing left standing was the plumbing. A sink seemed like the safest place.

Throughout childhood, I’d felt the occasional temblor. Most were kind of a quick jolt or rumble, like someone moving a piano upstairs, or one quick shake of a Jiffy Pop pan.

But that changed in ’65. I was in 5th grade and attending before-school orchestra practice at John Muir elementary school in the Rainier Valley. Our music teacher, Mr. Bloom, stood on a small podium in the lunchroom practice space, tuning a violin. He was a nice man who looked incongruously like Richard Nixon. As we were getting out our instruments, the room began to shake. It lasted less than a minute (45 seconds, they say), but felt like forever. The ceiling cracked, kids screamed, one of the bass players shouted “Hit the dirt!” and dove under a table in a clatter of falling stools. Mr. Bloom stood completely unperturbed, continued tuning the violin and told us to be calm. Was he fiddling while Seattle collapsed around him?

I put my brass French horn over my head in case the roof fell in. It was the best use for the horn, which I played very poorly.

The world seemed eerily normal afterward, but there was significant damage in the city and region. In Seattle, most of the mess was along the Duwamish, on Harbor Island or in Pioneer Square, places that are still vulnerable due to soil conditions and tsunami risk. Bricks fell, brewing and water tanks overturned, some structures collapsed, sidewalks buckled. At least seven people in the area died, three from heart failure. I remember a kid who was walking to school at the time told me that the telephone poles on the parking strips were bobbing up and down as the ground moved in waves, which created an indelible cartoon-like image in my mind.

Still, the city was resilient. The Space Needle stood, though it had swayed in a slow figure-eight giving its occupants a memorable ride. The chief engineer of the Needle had required the builders to increase the strength of its foundation to double the earthquake standard in 1961. One reason: The engineer, John Minasian, had studied with Professor Charles Richter of Richter scale fame at Cal Tech. Minasian’s specialty was the study of tower failure. The delicate-looking Needle’s survival was reassuring, and live KING radio reports from a studio on the Observation Deck helped to keep the city calm. (Disclosure: I still do historical research for the company that owns the Needle. When I was writer-in-residence there in 2011-12, my desk was right where the old studio used to be.)

I have no memory of my school day after the quake. I don’t know if we were sent home, or returned to our classrooms and portables. But I do know that our old, brick school had sustained damage and the way it was dealt with seems now very old school. After the quake, an arcing white line appeared on the playground concrete in front of the school’s entrance and we were told in no uncertain terms to stay outside that white line. I guess they didn’t want anything to drop on our heads, but I know that line stayed there for years. The school was eventually torn down and replaced.

My earthquake consciousness was raised. My mother told me that when the quake hit, my father leaped out of bed and stood spread-eagle in the doorway and shouted, “Here we go!” As a vet of the ’49 quake, he’d been expecting another. That, too, made an impression.

In the following years, the science of understanding the earth under our city and region has galloped along. By the 1990s, we’d learned we were at even greater risk than previously understood with the Seattle Fault running literally across the city. The geological record also revealed a history of massive past quakes at regular intervals. Read Seattle Times writer Sandi Doughton’s book “Full-Rip 9.0” to get a good picture of how that science has progressed.

One estimate is that a 30-second, 6.7 quake on the Seattle Fault could kill 1,600 people, injure another 24,000, and destroy some 10,000 homes or buildings while damaging another 180,000. Such research has made us more conscious of the risks of living here. We’ll never be an earthquake-proof city, but it has expanded our understanding of what’s necessary to build a more resilient city.

Still, there’s little we can actually do about it all except understand the science better. Quakes like the ones in ’65 and ’01 act as wake-up calls, but afterward, most of us hit the snooze button and go back to sleep. You can bet, however, that Seattle will be rudely awakened again some day to the cry of “Here we go.”

KUOW has more about the ’65 quake, including what we’ve learned and an interview with Knute Berger. You can listen here.

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