Tsunami at the stairs

By Kelley Atherton, The Triplicate April 02, 2009 08:30 am
As water rose, she pondered the possibilities

Ruth Long recalls watching the water rise up the stairs toward her family’s apartment. The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
Ruth Long recalls watching the water rise up the stairs toward her family’s apartment. The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
In what is usually the quiet time of night when the moon is high and one day is lapsing into the next, a surprise visitor from Alaska climbed the stairs toward the apartment Ruth Long shared with her husband and 22-month-old son.

The residents of all four units above G & G Liquors at 3rd and L Streets had gathered in the hallway with blankets and flashlights to await their fate. It was almost 2 a.m. on Saturday, March 28, 1964, and the night’s fourth and biggest tidal wave was flushing Crescent City.

Forty-five years later, Long still vividly recalls the thoughts that went through her head as she waited with her husband, Dale, their 22-month-old son, Ted, and their terrier, Koko. She had time to ponder the possibilities, because the water rose slowly, and no one was saying much.

“When we were waiting in the hall, I said to my husband, “Is there  anything we can do to survive this?’ “Wanting me to not get upset, he  said, ‘Yeah, we will.’”

She thought of how two characters in a James Michener book she’d been reading, “Hawaii,” had grabbed ahold of a tree in the swirl of a tsunami.

“So I thought, we’ll grab an electrical pole or telephone pole and we  can hang on. That solved it in my mind — that’s what  we’ll do. My brain didn’t want to look at what could happen, but what we were going to do. I knew I could hold the dog and Dale is very strong, I knew he wouldn’t have any trouble hanging on to Ted. I would hang onto Koko and somehow we would both hang on.”

The water kept rising.

“When it came to the last two steps I thought, ‘Oh Lord.’”

ANKLE-DEEP WATER WASN’T UNCOMMON


Long in the 1960s, and her husband and son in a photo shot on Good Friday, 1964, just hours before the tidal waves hit Crescent City. Submitted Photos
Long in the 1960s, and her husband and son in a photo shot on Good Friday, 1964, just hours before the tidal waves hit Crescent City. Submitted Photos
The young family had just moved back to Crescent City after running out of money in Klamath Falls, where Dale was getting his engineering degree at the Oregon Institute of Technology. He went back to work at the family business, Fashion Black­smith.

Today, Fashion Blacksmith is a fixture at Crescent City Harbor, a facility big enough to lodge even the big boats in need of repairs. In the early 1960s, it was located on Highway 101 at L Street, and its main work was welding and repairing lumber trucks.

When Dale and Ruth moved into an upstairs apartment across the street, they stored most of their possessions at the shop while trying to save money to get their own house. The place was run by his mother, Tina, who lived in her own apartment right above the business.

Ruth Long was then 25. She had lived in Crescent City off and on as a child, and knew that minor flooding in the lowlands was a fact of life. She’d even experienced tidal waves, ones that would but “only come up to, like, your ankle.”

A little water in the streets made no difference to most locals, and that’s the way the Longs felt when they noticed the flooding below as Good Friday was expiring at midnight. But then, they didn’t know that an earthquake had devastated Anchorage, Alaska, about four hours earlier.

Earlier in the evening they’d been picnicking at the beach with her mother, who was in town for Easter weekend. Settling in for the night back at their apartment, they were unaware of the tsunami alert.

“We heard nothing. We were not told anything, it was a  surprise to us.”

The first two waves caused enough hubbub to keep them from getting to sleep. Dale Long went down to the shop to move his tools out of the salty water and came back to the apartment. Then the third wave washed  in, higher than the first two, and Fashion Blacksmith’s garbage cans went floating down the street.

COMMUNICATING BY FLASHLIGHT

The final wave brought chaos.

Ruth Long recalls glancing out the window and seeing a Volkswagen with  two people in it floating down the water-filled street. She said they were rescued by the Ames family.

The phone lines were dead. Dale used his flashlight to see if his  mother was alright across the street by flicking light into the dark abyss toward her apartment. She signaled back.

“We figured the building had stood. “We didn’t know that she was standing there with another building from down the street  under her. J.O. Hiller’s gas station had come in under the shop.”

Their focus turned to the stairwell. The visitor from Alaska climbed nearly to the top, then began to recede. The apartment-dwellers followed it down, only to find the street-level door jammed.

They banged on the door and windows calling for help.

“One of the Hemmingsens” driving a county grader down the highway let them out. There were taken to higher ground, and Dr. Dale Rupert helped the Longs get to her aunt and uncle’s house on 8th Street.

No one slept that night. They stayed up listening to radio news reports. It wasn’t until the next day in the sunlight when many saw the harsh reality of the ocean’s destruction.

‘SALVAGING DAY’ AND NEW HOME

Submitted Photo
Submitted Photo
A redwood tree had pounded into the front of the liquor store below the apartments, she said. Numerous downtown buildings had collapsed or floated away.

“Everything I knew where it had been wasn’t there,” she said. “Everything was gone.”

They were allowed to return long enough to get belongings — a “salvaging day.”

“We had to get civil defense passes to get any clothing or anything  we wanted and then get out of there. We took what we could grab and  left the area.”

All the possessions she and Dale had stored at Fashion Blacksmith were gone, along with the car they were one payment away from owning outright. It all ended up in McNamara and Peep’s lumber yard  near 5th Street, she said.

Despite being damaged by the floating service station, the business reopened within a few days after family and friends made repairs. It later relocated to Parkway Drive and then to the harbor.

The Longs moved into the family’s log cabin in Gasquet. That fall, they found the house on A Street where Ruth and Dale still reside today.

She didn’t shed a tear until the third third day after the tsunami.

“I couldn’t believe we had gone through this and we had lost all of this.”

She realized she needed an outlet for her thoughts and wrote a  letter to her pen pal in England.

“For some reason I thought, ‘I will forget this, I’ve got to know,’ so I wrote everything I could think of down.”

“Where it is now,” she said shaking her head, wondering where her  copy of the letter had disappeared to.

‘DOESN’T LOOK LIKE CRESCENT CITY’

She thinks the city could have done a better job rebuilding the town by taking more time to think it out thoroughly.

“I think they rushed too heavy into it. Everything that was coming back was so modern-looking, like you didn’t want to be in  that time zone — it lost character.”

The old Crescent City looked like what Ferndale does now, she said, with a Victorian feel.

“I didn’t foresee it modernizing as much,” she said. “I saw it  staying like Ferndale did — that’s how I pictured it would be. I  would grow old with this town being as I remembered it.”

“It doesn’t look like Crescent City anymore. I could go  down the streets and I knew — even though weren’t paved then — that  my great-grandparents had gone down those same streets. That stays  with me, I like the quaintness of that.”

Spring and the Easter season always bring back the memories.

Just the other day, she found a “Comeback Town U.S.A.” T-shirt they had bought for Ted.

“I am always finding something that takes my mind back to it,” she  said.

“I don’t if it was luck or if that was what the ocean wanted to do  and as far as it wanted to come,” she said of that night at the top of the stairs.

“You really can’t say what nature’s going to do. Nature pretty much does its own thing.”


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