When people die, they take their stories with them,” someone told me. But fortunately, some, such as Kathryn Chichenoff, shared their stories while they were fresh in their minds. The other day I was delighted to hear the voices of Kathryn and other departed elders who had been interviewed by the Native Village of Afognak.
Kathryn shared memories of the pandemonium of the 1964 Good Friday earthquake and tidal wave, which will be 57 years old on Saturday, March 27.
Kathryn’s story, recorded by the NVA, was the same account she gave me when I interviewed her and her husband, Sonny — who died this summer — on their 50th anniversary in 2007.
When the quake hit, Kathryn thought one of her five kids was jumping up and down.
“I was hollering, ‘Who’s jumping out there?’” she said.
But the kids were at the table eating. Then it dawned on her that they were having an earthquake.
She ran outside with four children in tow and then realized that ther baby, Melodi, whom she had recently brought home from the hospital, was still inside the house.
“So I had to go back in and get her. I grabbed her and just made it,” she said.
Kathryn, who was exhausted from her long hospital stay and the trauma of the moment, almost fainted because the ground was shaking so badly, she said.
Sonny had been downtown and ran toward home as the quake hit. The sky was black. The sidewalk undulated like waves from the violent movement of the quake.
He noticed a lady emerging from a bar, attempting to navigate the rippling ground in her intoxicated clumsiness. The image struck Sonny as comical, but at that time it wasn’t so funny. People were running for their lives.
Eventually, Sonny caught up with his family. They got a ride to Pillar Mountain — a designated safety zone — with Sonny’s sister and brother-in-law, Phyllis and Cecil Sholl.
“We were the first ones up Pillar Mountain,” Kathryn said.
Kathryn and her baby were allowed to stay in the White Alice building.
Kathryn recalled that people were afraid to go back to their homes that night for fear of discovering they had been destroyed or swept away by the wave.
The Chichenoffs were relieved to see their house intact on a firm foundation when they returned.
Betty Nelson and their kids had just finished eating dinner. Betty put a pan of water on the wood stove to heat for dish water. Pretty soon the water started splashing onto the stove.
The earthquake was brief and violent.
“It was the longest three minutes I ever experienced,” Betty said. “It seemed like an eternity.”
Afognak residents Julia and Johnny Pestrikoff were driving by Little Graveyard on their way to see the film “King of Kings” at the community hall
When they knew that something was wrong, they rushed home and Julia busily packed groceries while her husband stood in the doorway, keeping an eye on the water.
“Come out here and watch!” he yelled to Julia.
“The wave went way out past Hog Island. Then it dried up. It’s just like mountains out there, Julia. Come and see,” John said.
Julia was too busy packing groceries to get a glimpse of the bay dried up as far as Whale Island.
The people of Afognak took refuge on a ridge and spent the night there. Periodically, men would go down to the village to see what damage had been done.
The next morning in broad daylight, stunned villagers found their way back to their homes, many of which had been badly damaged.
Not long after the tidal wave, village leaders got together to discuss the future of Afognak.
They determined that it was more beneficial to move to another place and start all over again. They chose a protected spot several miles away in Kizhuyak Bay appropriately named Settlers Cove.
The new community was named Port Lions in honor of the Lions Club, which helped the Afognak villagers in their move.
The village of Kaguyak on Kodiak Island’s east side was wiped out by the tidal wave.
In 1981, Joe Melovedov — a resident of old Kaguyak — gave his account of the tidal wave. He remembered the exact time the earthquake hit. The family was getting ready to go outside to dig clams when “all of a sudden the earth started shaking,” Joe said.
“Everything on the table fell to the floor. (The quake) knocked me off my feet.”
Joe said that a far less violent tremor had shaken the ground a year before.
On that night, he contacted Bill Harvey in Kodiak by way of his transmitter. As Joe gave his report, he looked out the window at No Point Rock inside Two-Headed Bay, and the rock disappeared.
A tide rushed into the bay, hitting the 8-foot mark. It quickly receded, and 10 minutes later it returned, hitting the nine foot mark, Joe recalled.
Within 15 minutes, the tide hit the 10 foot mark, and as it backed up, it left a dry bay behind.
The fourth wave was by far the worst, Joe said, comparing its noise to the sound of a jet plane.
Villagers, like their fellow islanders in other sites throughout the Kodiak Archipelago, gathered on a ridge outside the perilous path of the tsunami.
The fourth wave uprooted the nearly completed Orthodox church from its foundation, and carried it to Lake Kaguyak several miles away.
Joe’s uncle, church reader Walter Melovedov, led the group in prayer by reading from the church’s prayer book.
As the church was being carried back toward the ocean in the backlash, the building stopped at the foot of the ridge, “right beneath us,” Joe said, adding that after the prayer was uttered, the building continued toward the bay and ended up in the area east of Kaguyak.
Village chief Simmy Alexandroff, Nick Zeedar and Donald Wyatt, who had been surveying for oil with his wife, lost their lives in the disaster as they tried to help others.
We can be thankful that the stories of the elders have been preserved in video, audio and newspaper archives. Those stories are not only entertaining and informative, but also instructional. Perhaps we can draw from the elders’ strength and wisdom as we deal with the hardships caused by the coronavirus.