Readers give their accounts of ’64 tsunami
Several readers responded to the newspaper’s invitation to write about what they experienced the night tidal waves swamped Crescent City.
Bud Pyke outside the Ben Franklin store after the ocean crashed through its windows. Photo by Maris Ward courtesy of the Maris Ward family
Excerpts from some of those accounts follow, including some people who were in the middle of the action and some who didn’t find out what happened until hours later.
Almost everyone who wrote also expressed opinions about what’s happened here in the 45 years since that night. Some criticized the rebuilding efforts, others praised them. Everyone agreed the town was radically changed in a matter of minutes.
DOUG PYKE: ‘LIKE A CARNIVAL ATMOSPHERE’
My Dad Ernie and his brother Bud Pyke had a brand new Ben Franklin (variety) store build in 1964 on Third Street … It hadn’t been long since we moved from the old 5&10 on Second Street.
My brother Steve and I were at home at my Dad’s house in Meadowbrook Acres shortly after dinner. My Dad had gotten a call from my Uncle Bud about a tidal wave alert. In the past the alerts had never matured into anything, but my Dad, Steve, Betty (my stepmom) and myself went to town … When we got to the store it was almost like a carnival atmosphere, people taking about the tidal wave and that we probably wouldn’t see any water …
People were talking and milling around when someone said that some water was coming! The first wave only came up to the top edge of the sidewalk and we all thought that was it, and that wasn’t so bad.
Later people started talking and watching as (another) wave was now approaching … now coming and coming and coming till it was up over the sidewalks on Third Street. People were hastily moving now not to get their feet wet! … Soon water was coming in and onto the main floor … my Dad told me and Steve to pick merchandise up off the floor and put it on the higher counters. So we started doing just that until the water just kept getting deeper and deeper. My brother and I soon ran to the front doors to look out. Water was rising on the front doors and big plate glass windows. So we pushed a penny machine that told your fortune and gave your weight in front of the front doors, hoping it would help keep them shut ... as we stood there and watched, a 6 foot by 6 foot hanging planter in front of the Koffee Kup floated away.
With all the lights on in the store we could see the green water on the outside plate glass windows was over our heads by a long ways. We were like fish in a fish bowl ... The water had gone clear around the store and now was coming through the back doors of the store and the stockroom door, which was a garage door that had buckled … Water was rushing like a torrent in a river. Waist-deep now, we were struggling to get to higher ground ... The big plate glass windows starting popping like shotguns going off … soon debris was coming through the broken windows, logs and a 500-gallon propane tank … (we were) hoping that the propane tank would not find a spark and set it off like a giant bomb. You could smell the propane and the salty smell of the ocean and many other things.
The giant whirlpool continued for quite some time. From the office I could see electric transformers shorting out and catching on fire. I could even see the bulk gas storage tanks at Elk Creek catch on fire in the moonlit night … Finally it did start going down. By now we were talking … wondering if we should make a run for it or take a chance in getting caught in another wave … We waited for about 15 minutes before we all decided to make a run through the almost waist-high water and debris … By the time we got out, there were police officers outside waiting for us.
In 1964 I was a freshman at Humboldt State College and home for the spring break. My good friend Gary Waterman and I were sitting in my ’55 Chevy, eating a hamburger and fries and listening to KRED radio in front of Punkeys’, a favored hangout, across the street from Crescent Lanes bowling alley. We noticed two Highway Patrol, a City Police and two Sheriff squad cars heading south on L St., all within a period of about five minutes. So, our natural curiosity peaked, we decided to follow them to see what was up ....
The idea of a tsunami was the very last thing on our minds, in fact we had never heard of the word before. We continued south on L Street to First and the S-curves, to discover sizeable driftwood logs lying along the side of the road near Elk Creek. Again we were mystified by all of this.
My father had been a commercial fisherman for 17 years, so it seemed natural to head down to Citizens Dock and check out what was happening. To my surprise, the harbor was a buzz of activity. We first notice a group of boat lights as fishermen were heading out to sea, to avoid the tidal surge. At one point, between the third and fourth surge, many of those boats were sitting on the sea floor as the ocean retreated out of the harbor.
We barely got out of the car when I heard the voices of my Dad’s friends Andy Clark and Carl Brower, of the boat Margarita, shouting, “Don, what in hell are you doing here? There is a tidal wave coming. You better get on home.”
We drove back up to Second St. and west along its’ quiet shops for what was to prove to be the very last time I could drive there ... I parked my Chevy just above Fourth Street near the courthouse. We got out and walked back to town ...
We had just passed Bazzini’s Shell gas station on the corner of Second and H. St. when a most amazing sight greeted us. A police officer was running up H. Street shouting at us to run. About 20 feet behind him was a 4-foot wave rolling up the street. Behind it was a small trailer-house floating past the Surf Hotel ... This was actually the third surge of the tsunami ... The fourth surge hit with a vengeance.
We walked east along Third Street to I Street when we again saw water coming at us in the form of a small wave. This time I saw a big old Oldsmobile floating up I Street get thrown against the Ames Appliance Store and smash the windows next to the main entrance door. Many parked cars were floating up the street ...
We turned tail and started running. We ran up to Sixth Street before we stopped ... I’ll never forget looking east toward McNamara & Peep Lumber Mill, behind the present Safeway, and could see nothing but water sweeping all the way around as high as Fifth Street. The entire town was swamped in about 10 feet of ocean. I had no idea that 10 people were struggling for their very lives at that moment, and losing. My dear city was in ruins.
Grandmother always waited up for me. I was 18, a freshman at UC Berkeley visiting for the spring break ... Grandma undoubtedly thought me a communist with my newly sprouted scraggly beard, beret and a pipe. But she kept her counsel generally and so was glad to see me when I returned from my walk that March night in 1964, and we sat together at the window and talked …
I heard a police radio directly beneath us. I opened the living room window and saw a policeman standing in the street below. The street was wet and littered with driftwood. A police car was idling in the middle of the cross street to my right, its headlights pointed toward the ocean, the driver inside the car with the door open and one leg out.
I shouted down and asked what the trouble was. “Just had a really big wave,” was the policeman’s reply. Suddenly the policeman in the car shouted quite loudly, “My God, here she comes!” and went roaring away from the ocean in reverse, leaving his partner on the street, though there wasn’t much choice. As we watched, great gushes of water poured through the sidestreets. Across from us I could hear the Central Hotel start to groan. The policeman on the street fortunately grabbed a light pole and was able to hang on ...
Grandmother was frightened and I was excited and grandfather was asleep and ill. The lights went out. Immediately I could smell gas from broken mains. Stairs led from the street to the upstairs living quarters and water came within 6 inches of flooding the second floor. I made my way to the back entrance, which had stairs down into a back alley parking lot, and could see grandfather’s Plymouth turning round in the floodwaters. Toward the south some of the tanks in the refinery started to explode and I remember the flames lighting the sky.
But then the water drained and it was quiet. I was able to make it downstairs and push the door open. We were the only people who resided in that area of downtown and I remember how eerie everything seemed. Cars piled on top of each other, cars shoved through windows. Debris everywhere. The gas smell was even more powerful.
It was a beautiful full moon on March 27, 1964. My parents lived downtown on the second floor. Downstairs was the 5- and 10-cent store. It was a full moon and my nephew had gone to the beach and had just returned home. At 1:30 a.m. I got a phone call from my mother saying “get us out of here; the tidal wave hit.”
John and my husband rushed downtown. I saw fires and heard sirens. I grabbed our 4-year-old daughter and starting running downtown to find my family. As I ran, a man dropped dead in front of me. I was yelling and two men in front of me were yelling, saying “don’t go down there; wires are down, fires all over.” I kept going and found John driving over logs and all kinds of things! …
In the morning we went to see the damage downstairs at the 5- and 10-cent store. Total damage. An eel was thrashing in the cash register. We left our parents home in tears. The rescue teams, firemen, everybody worked to clean up the mess and got my parents’ possessions out. It was very quiet. Later the homes and stores were all torn down.
On the morning in question we were sitting at the breakfast table eating breakfast and the phone rang. It was the girls’ mother calling from Washington almost hysterical with worry over the girls. Wanting to know if they were OK and if the tidal wave had reached us. We lived on Lake Earl Drive and were a long way from the ocean, but that was our introduction to the fact that Crescent City had just been struck a devastating blow, one that had caused deaths among some that we knew.
We drove down a bit later to see what had happened and as far as we were allowed was Ninth Street. We could look down the streets and see buildings, logs, cars and lumber scattered all over the streets. A horrible sight I hope never to see again. I remember when we were finally allowed to go down into the area that the Moose Hall building where we had our meetings was kitty-wampus on the foundation, and the buildings across the street were all damaged. Some of them completely gone, as were the ones on Front Street. I remember the huge fires from the gas and oil tanks … not being allowed down toward Klamath as the highway was covered in debris as well as the fires.
It was Easter vacation weekend for all schools, so my mother, Myrtle G. Kelly, left town. She was a teacher at Crescent Elk School for 30 years. I had a brother living up in Medford who worked for a TV station. She drove up there to spend Easter vacation with Jerry and his wife. She called me at about 10:30 p.m. to say they had just heard on TV about a tidal wave up on the coast of Alaska. It was traveling down the coast ...
We sat in the kitchen at the table all night, listening to KCRE and drinking coffee … On the radio they said everyone should drive up toward Grants Pass. I got Jennifer, age 5, and Melissa, age 2, up and dressed them. Then they told us if we lived back away from the ocean, we didn’t have to leave. I put them back to bed. It was a very scary night.
We lived on the 600 block of Cooper Street. My husband was a butcher at Pacific Market. It was the only grocery store that didn’t wash away … My brother drove down from Medford Saturday morning. He had a credential from his TV station, so was allowed to drive down through Town, where you could drive and see and take pictures. He allowed me and my three daughters to go with him. You wouldn’t believe what the town looked like. It was a lot different that it is now. Dalys and Trehearnes on Third Street were the two big clothing stores. The ladies clothes were on the second floor of Dalys. They were saved. Trehearnes covered the whole block on J Street, from Second to Third streets. It was a big store. Next to it was a small soda fountain, magazine and newspaper store. I believe it was named Millers. I remember all those businesses. Most of them never came back.