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Aiken man remembers titanic 1964 Alaskan earthquake

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Local retiree Art Kennedy now has 57 years and about 3,500 miles separating him from one of the biggest geologic events in human history, but the memories are clear and the former U.S. Forest Service employee has a stack of memorabilia connected to the massive earthquake that rocked Alaska late in the afternoon of March 27, 1964.

With the anniversary approaching, the 85-year-old Aiken County resident who lives in Cedar Creek brought some of his mementoes to the Aiken Standard office recently, including copies of "Alaska Terror," an article that he helped create for the August 1965 edition of "Alaska Sportsman" magazine. 

Kennedy has "pretty vivid" memories of the calamity, he said, recalling his role as a Navy-trained photographer who picked up camera skills while serving in Pensacola, Florida. By the time he reached Alaska, he was a public information officer for the Forest Service.

On Good Friday in 1964, he was part of a four-member team in the Portage Glacier area, measuring the depth of a lake for scientific studies. He had just taken a reading ("534 feet of water, 3 feet of ice"), when the ice around him began to buckle and the water he had been measuring dropped out of sight. He was witnessing a quake that measured 9.2 on the Richter magnitude scale – the largest ever recorded in North America and the second-largest ever recorded in the world. 

"Again and again the mountains shuddered, the ice heaved and fell and cracked as we struggled to stay on our feet," he said, in an account to writer Herbert E.McLean. The shaking reportedly lasted four to five minutes.

The group, amid snow flurries, had about an hour of sunlight remaining as avalanches roared nearby.

Kennedy recalled, "Now we heard water all around, and I saw the unbelievable – the entire lake was heaving and falling. Water around shore was spilling up and out like coffee from a cup." 

The group's challenge, with 5,000-foot peaks in all directions, was to use a snowmobile and their survival skills to reach safety, and that came in the form of a 10x15 foot cabin occupied by an Alaska Railroad patrolman, Max Hoekzema, and his wife and their daughter. 

Kennedy's magazine account noted, "Next morning the reality of our ordeal caught up with us. Slogging down toward the lake, we saw the result of the quake's fury. The ice lay around the shore like so much crinkled glass. Overhead, nasty black earth-gashes streaked the mountainsides where avalanches had thundered. Proud Portage Glacier, whose sheer ice face I'd pointed out to visitors on many occasions, lay fractured and broken, flattened into a gentle slope. Out over the lake I saw the desperate, circling trackmarks of our Arctic Cat from the night before. I traced our escape route through a treacherous mountain of rubble ice, the only route off that floating hell."

A rescue helicopter picked up the foursome, and the day's views included a completely deserted highway "crossed with gaping crevasses" and train tracks with contorted rails "twisted like strands of spaghetti."

He added, "The earthquake didn't scare me off. It just seemed like part of life." 

description by the U.S. Geological Survey recalled that "the second largest instrumentally recorded earthquake worldwide rocked southern Alaska for four to five minutes" – an event that "triggered a major tsunami that caused casualties and damage from the Kodiak Islands to northern California."

Another USGS report noted, "It was so large that it caused the entire Earth to ring like a bell: vibrations that were among the first of their kind ever recorded by modern instruments. The Great Alaska Earthquake spawned thousands of lesser aftershocks and hundreds of damaging landslides, submarine slumps, and other ground failures. Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, located west of the fault rupture, sustained heavy property damage."

Kennedy, a native of Kansas City, Missouri, was mostly based in the Last Frontier – all over the state – from 1962 to 1996, working in a variety of roles and running for a U.S. Senate seat as a Republican in 1980. Along the way, he worked as a consultant and "effectively spearheaded large multi-tiered land exchanges between his clients and the federal and state governments," helping transfer more than a million acres into federal custody, as indicated on his resume. 

"I always had a camera," he added. "I've probably taken a half-million pictures in my career. I've probably got a quarter-million of them stashed around here somewhere."

Advancing age and his preferences for warm weather and short winters led him to Aiken County. 

Referring to Alaska, Kennedy said, "I liked the hunting, the fishing, outdoors. Kids liked it, and ... I traveled around the state.  The coldest I ever saw was, I'd say, 65 below, and the ... summertimes were nice. It was usually around 70 degrees. Sun out in Anchorage 20 hours a day. Come up in the morning about 2. Go down about 10, and that was nice."

He and his fellow travelers of late March 1964, he recalled, even enjoyed a frozen treat soon after their near-death experience. 

His magazine report noted, "We ambled down to Portage Cafe, which had sunk 3 feet into the ground. 'You boys want some ice cream?' asked the lady there. From the shambles inside, she salvaged three gallon containers of black walnut, chocolate and strawberry. We stood there amid the wreckage, eating our ice cream in the 15-degree morning. It tasted great." 

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