Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Jim Church, of Sparta was in Kodiak, Alaska working on the United States Coast Guard base during an earthquake that shook the island on Jan. 23.

A shaking feeling

Sparta man recalls Alaskan earthquake experience

On Jan. 23, Jim Church, of Sparta awoke in his hotel room in Kodiak, Alaska at 12:32 a.m. to the bed shaking. An earthquake measured at 7.9 on the magnitude scale occurred in the Gulf of Alaska 170 miles southeast of Kodiak Island at a depth of 16 miles.

According to Church, there are only around 15 earthquakes measured between 7 and 7.9 each year around the world.

“If you ever grew up by a train, it was similar to that but much more intense. Knowing where I was located, I knew it wasn’t a train,” Church joked. “There were two large glass closet doors and it literally sounded like somebody was inside that closet trying to get out. It was rattling that bad.”

It was pitch dark in the room as the earthquake lasted about another 60 seconds after Church had awoken. He called down to the front desk when they confirmed it was in fact an earthquake, he was told to remain in his room unless otherwise instructed.

The earthquake prompted a tsunami warning for Alaska and British Columbia as well as a tsunami watch for the United States West Coast and Hawaii. Five minutes after Church hung up, the weather sirens for the tsunami warning went off and the local authorities issued evacuations.

“I called down to the front desk again and they said, ‘we’re evacuating to the high school area.’ I didn’t want to deal with the high school because I knew it was going to be crazy,” he said. “I headed the opposite direction and drove to the police station.”

A few off duty officers were there with their families. He arrived at the station around 12:50 a.m. where he could hear the radio chatter. At that point, they were tracking a 30-foot wave out on the buoys, which eventually dissipated as it got closer to Kodiak Island due to it being low tide.

The earthquake was a strike-slip event that occurred within the Pacific Plate, which means the plates shifted sideways versus up and down so it didn’t create as big of a wave.

“Either way, they were plenty serious about it,” Church said. “And then we got the all clear around 4:30 a.m.”

Church was in Kodiak on business through Kaiyuh Services, which has a five-year contract with the U.S. Coast Guard based on Kodiak Island providing food services in the galley. After he was given the all clear, Church returned to his hotel room and headed straight to the base.

The base sits at sea level and was completely evacuated. During the tsunami warning, the coast guard was scrambling all of the aircraft on the base to get them airborne.

“You could hear the 2-C130s taking off, the 2-C104 taking off. You could hear the choppers go up,” Church said. “And you could hear the airplanes circling the island. That was eerie.”

Church spoke with a few of the pilots who told him when the sirens go off, they have to leave their families behind to get every plane airborne. Every flight crew was scrambled and left immediately.

“If you think about what they do and sacrifice. People are grabbing their families and running one way but they’re not. They’re running towards it,” he said. “There are numerous guys on the base that have to hold their post. They don’t leave and they’re at sea level. So, if a tsunami comes they don’t have a choice but to stay there.”   

In talking to a lot of the locals, Church was told Kodiak was hit by a huge earthquake and tsunami in 1964, which wiped out part of Anchorage and Kodiak. Pictures hanging in the hallways at Church’s hotel depicted the devastation left behind.

“They were very serious about the tsunami warning,” he explained, adding the siren went off for well over an hour.

The first major aftershocks occurred 20 minutes after the earthquake, the strongest one measured 5.6 on the magnitude scale. Most measured between 4 and 5.

“They were noticeable,” Church said, noting there was no major damage caused from the earthquake.

After working a full day, he returned to his hotel room to notice his room was in disarray when the reality of the situation finally sank in for him. Everything that had been sitting on a table the night before had fallen to the floor.

“As I was looking at what happened I thought, ‘yeah, stuff is not where it was at.’ Then it started to sink in that that was pretty serious,” he said. “As someone from the Midwest traveling to Kodiak for the first time, it was definitely a different experience.” 

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