Soundings: A day to remember 1964 earthquake, North America’s largest

March 27, 2014 

Chuck Volanti has vivid memories of four fellow Alaska Air National Guard members who died in a Valdez plane crash during a relief mission after the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964. (JOHN DODGE/Staff writer)

JOHN DODGE — Staff writer

As strange as it may seem, it took a rural Thurston County resident 50 years removed from a tour of duty in Alaska to prompt the state to officially recognize its most significant natural disaster — the Good Friday Earthquake of March 27, 1964.

Chuck Volanti, 74, has been on a one-person mission since last June, prodding Alaskan state legislators and clergy to formally acknowledge the heroes and victims of what remains the most powerful earthquake in the recorded history of North America.

The 9.2 magnitude temblor rattled a 50,000 square-mile area of southcentral Alaska and was felt as far south as Washington state. The ensuing open-ocean tsunami and local waves generated by underwater landslides added to the death and destruction that claimed 131 lives in Alaska, California and Oregon.

Volanti was relentless in his pursuit of recognition of the Good Friday Earthquake. His persistence has paid off in meaningful ways.

On Thursday — the 50th anniversary of Alaska’s subduction zone earthquake along the boundary of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates — church bells at Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches across the state will ring just before and after 5:26 p.m. That’s when four minutes of earth rattling devastation dropped and lifted portions of the Alaskan coastline 10 to 30 feet.

The bells will toll because Volanti asked church hierarchy, and they agreed, for this simple act of remembrance.

Volanti, who lived through the earthquake as an Alaskan Air National Guard flight dispatcher assigned to the Kulis Air National Guard Base in Anchorage, Alaska, didn’t stop there.

He also persuaded the Alaska legislature to proclaim March 27, 2014, Good Friday Earthquake Remembrance Day. House Joint Resolution 23 was co-sponsored by 27 of 40 House members and 15 of 20 state senators. It was signed into law by Gov. Sean Parnell, R-Alaska, on March 4.

Volanti moved from Alaska to take a job in the Pierce County Treasurer’s Office shortly after the earthquake, later moving to Thurston County to work in state government. He has an adult son living in Alaska and visits every few years. He shares a birthday with the state — he turned 74 on Jan. 3, and Alaska turned 55. He believes state officials have never given the earthquake its rightful place in state history.

“I’ve always thought there should be a bill to recognize March 27 as an annual day of remembrance,” he said. “For me, it’s all about the people of Alaska.”

That’s not to say communities and groups haven’t recognized the earthquake’s anniversary. There are a number of community events and even a statewide earthquake drill — the Great Alaska Shake Out — set for Thursday.

Volanti was driven to act in large part by the memory of four Alaska Air National Guard colleagues who died in a plane crash April 27, 1964, after flying Gov. William A. Egan to Valdez to survey earthquake damage there. Victims included Volanti’s boss — the state’s first adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard — Maj. Gen. Thomas Carrol, pilot Lt. Col. Thomas Norris, Sr., co-pilot Major James Rowe and flight engineer Sgt. Kenneth W. Ayers.

The subduction zone earthquake was centered about 45 miles west of Valdez, killing 31 in Valdez, causing millions of cubic yards of earth to slide into Valdez Bay and leading to relocation of the southeast Alaskan sea port to more stable ground.

Volanti had just finished his day shift at the air base, and was inside his mobile home when the earthquake struck.

The ground was like a twisting, jumping, jolting bull, and Volanti, like thousands of other Alaskans, was an unsuspecting bull rider.

“I bolted for the door to respond to the screams of my neighbor and her daughter, but made it only three steps before I was knocked to the ground,” he recalled. “There was no way of standing, so I sat pinned to the ground, my hands tightly wrapped around the door knob.”

Volanti waited and prayed for the violent shaking to end. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, it stopped.

He found his neighbors shaken but unharmed. Moments later, his wife and 6-month-old son pulled into the driveway in the family car.

Once assured the home was structurally sound and his family was safe, Volanti returned to the air base and spent the next three days coordinating National Guard flight crews for airborne relief and rescue missions. He marvels to this day at the resolve and sacrifice of thousands of military personnel and civilians who pitched in as first responders.

“That is what we should never forget, never take for granted, and always remember,” he said in testimony on behalf of House Resolution 23.

On Thursday and Friday, Volanti will be in Anchorage, placing a wreath at the wall of honor at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, meeting with Orthodox Church Bishop David Mahaffey and Archbishop of Anchorage Roger L. Schwietz, as well as Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan.

He will pay his respects to those who lost their lives 50 years ago and thank those who have joined him in a special day of remembrance on behalf of the people of Alaska.

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