He didn’t turn his back, and that made all the difference
There’s a spot on the highway in Crescent City, at Front Street just before you hit the S curve to head over Elk Creek and out of town, where it’s easy to imagine water overcoming land even with no tsunami in the forecast.
Frank McNamara points to a tsunami high water mark while revisiting the spot where he saw the biggest wave arriving. The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
It’s like the narrow end of a funnel, the harbor being the wide end.
Frank McNamara is here, soaked to the skin, but still trying to help an elderly couple whose car is stuck on a log. It’s about 1:45 a.m. on March 28, 1964. His hands are on the rear bumper, trying to lift it. The robust 43-year-old attempts this feat with his back to the car, which is why he lives to celebrate his 88th birthday.
He faces the harbor as Crescent City’s signature moment arrives. The 110-year-old town has already been swamped by three tidal waves this night. Now the biggest wave sparkles in the moonlight, maybe 150-200 yards away.
“I thought, my God, that thing’s coming back with a vengeance.”
He lets go of the bumper. “‘Folks, that water’s coming in again. Come on with me.’ And they just sat there.”
He leaves them and sprints north on the highway, desperate for an uphill slope.
‘I’M GOING TO HAVE TO START THE DOG PADDLE’
It’s never good news when you get awakened after midnight by a call from one of your children. Frank and Patty McNamara are asleep in their Elk Valley Road home, on the same property where he was born in 1921. They’ve gone to bed unaware of the monster earthquake in Alaska and the tsunami warnings for the West Coast. When the telephone rings, it’s one of their daughters, a Humboldt State University student up late studying.
“Dad, you’ve got a tidal wave in Crescent City.”
This is not something he can go back to sleep on. He manages Newman’s Paints, a store owned by his wife’s parents on L Street half a block from the highway. He gets in his Ford pickup and drives there.
Two waves have wetted downtown by the time he arrives, but when he unlocks the door and steps inside, he’s relieved. Newman’s has just stocked up for the summer, and while the floor is a mess, everything else is intact. High tides come right up to Front Street back in these pre-Beachfront Park days, and sometimes higher. He’s seen this before.
“I thought, well, I’ll come back in the morning and clean this place up a bit.”
He calls his wife on a countertop telephone. As they talk, the Pacific Ocean starts pouring in through an open door. That summer inventory is floating around him. The lights are still on, and he’s worried about the risk of electrocution. When his personal sea-level reaches mid-torso, he tells her, “Well, it’s been nice knowing you. I’m going to have to start the dog paddle.”
She thinks he’s exaggerating. Then one of the Texaco gas tanks around the S curve explodes. She can see the glare from her house several miles away.
‘IT WAS LIKE A GIANT RIVER OF WATER’
At practically the same time McNamara hangs up, the water starts to recede. Like most tidal waves, this night’s third visitor departs quicker than it arrived. Once again, he fancies the notion of going home and dealing with all this in the morning. Saltwater has reached higher than the hood of his almost-new pickup, however, and it won’t start.
He gets out and climbs the stairs to the apartment of Frank Boynton, a store employee. They talk, but Boynton refuses to leave. He won’t be the last person to ignore McNamara’s advice.
Water-logged, but too “hyped up” to feel cold, he walks down Second Street past a cafe, turns the corner at the highway and encounters the elderly couple sitting in a car high-centered in the parking lot of the Royal Motel (where the Front Street Inn is today). They ask for help.
Thinking of his pickup, he says, “I don’t think your car’s gonna run. Why don’t you come with me?”
They aren’t budging, so he walks to the back of the car to see if he can somehow dislodge it. He wonders even today what would have happened if at this point he faces toward the car instead of away from it while trying to lift the bumper. Because Crescent City’s time is up.
At the same spot today, buildings would partially block the harbor view. But the Cultural Center hasn’t been built yet, and only the foundation has been laid for the Municipal Pool.
“It was a moonlit night. You could see way out there.”
Even at a distance, he senses being well beneath where he should be.
“It was like a giant river of water coming at you and you’re down here below the river.”
He knows it’s a matter of seconds now, so he doesn’t hesitate when the couple won’t exit their car.
“I had a head start. I could flat-out run in those days.”
‘THE AIR WAS JUST CHARGED, LIKE EVERYTHING WAS GOING TO BLOW UP’
He doesn’t stop until he reaches Fifth Street, just beyond the tsunami’s reach. At this point his story becomes less of a narrative and more a series of vivid images as he meanders back along the path of the retreating water.
A man dripping seawater yells for help. He’s in shock, saying he’s lost his wife and baby (they’ve actually escaped unharmed, it turns out).
People climb aboard CalTrans rigs on the highway to escape the ocean’s deadly recession. Heavy machinery operators actually use their scoops to lift some survivors out of the water.
The southern sky is lit by the glare of exploded gas tanks and fires burning in service stations and an auto dealership. “The air was just charged, like everything was going to blow up. It just felt that way.”
Some buildings are not where they should be, including a familiar house in the middle of the highway. When he gets back to the paint store, he finds much of it has been demolished by that house, which used to be firmly entrenched next door. The portion of the store with the upstairs apartment has been spared, and he enlists the help of two policemen to coax Boynton from it.
He glimpses another whole corridor of devastation farther west on Second Street, Crescent City’s main thoroughfare no longer. Finally, one of the many business owners who has lost everything offers to drive McNamara, and Boynton, home to Elk Valley.
‘IT’S ONLY BY THE GRACE OF GOD THAT I MADE IT’
They have only fire insurance on the store, and never do get around to rebuilding after long delays going through the urban renewal process. They rent another location for a few years, then McNamara continues his painting career working for a different company.
He and Patty, his high school sweetheart, will celebrate their 69th wedding anniversary on the Fourth of July. He thinks often of that night 45 years ago, especially the pivotal moment in the motel parking lot.
“If I had turned my back, if I had wandered around there for two minutes, I wouldn’t be here. It’s only by the grace of God that I made it.”
As it turns out, the elderly couple probably make the right move by staying in their car. They survive as it washes up the highway to the area behind what is now the Safeway store.
It’s the same place where McNamara finds some of the summer merchandise
that floated out of his store, caught up in that night’s current of
The waves of destruction
Part 1 Why are we tsunami-prone?
Part 1 #2 Tsunami: Not fit for surfing
Part 3 Riding out the wave
Part 4 Tsunami at the stairs
Part 5 In their own words
To learn more about the '62 Tsunami