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.
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 andhellip; It hadn't been long
since we moved from the old 5and10 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
andhellip; 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 andhellip;
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 andhellip; 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! andhellip; Soon water was coming in and onto the main floor andhellip; 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 andhellip; 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 andhellip; soon debris was coming through the
broken windows, logs and a 500-gallon propane tank andhellip; (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 andhellip; Finally it did start going down. By now we were
talking andhellip; wondering if we should make a run for it or take a chance in
getting caught in another wave andhellip; We waited for about 15 minutes before
we all decided to make a run through the almost waist-high water and
debris andhellip; By the time we got out, there were police officers outside
waiting for us.
DON GILLESPIE: 'A MOST AMAZING SIGHT'
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
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
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 and 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.
STEVEN R. PHIPPS: 'MY GOD, HERE SHE COMES'
It was very late and grandmother, Lillian Ward, was waiting for me,
sitting quietly at the window of the living room on the second story of
the downtown Crescent City building owned by her and my grandfather,
Roy Ward, located at 944 Second Street. The structure was huge andhellip; From
the living room one could look out and see the bay, but for the Central
Hotel directly across the street. To its right was a small cafe which
had curtains and soft lighting. At street level, below and to the left,
I could (by reaching out the window) look down to McGilveries, which
was a soda fountain where I had as a child bought Uncle Scrooge comics
and chocolate malts.
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 andhellip;
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.
FRAN SHORT: 'AN EEL WAS THRASHING'
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! andhellip;
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.
JoAN YOST: MOOSE HALL WAS 'KITTY-WAMPUS'
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 andhellip; not being allowed down toward Klamath as
the highway was covered in debris as well as the fires.
SALLY BAKER: 'IT WAS A VERY SCARY NIGHT'
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 andhellip; 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
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 andhellip;
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.
More stories from the six part series on the '64 Tsunami:
The waves of destruction
Part 1 Why are we tsunami-prone?
Part 1 #2 Tsunami: Not fit for surfing
Part 2 A night of close calls
Part 3 Riding out the wave
Part 4 Tsunami at the stairs