By Jenny Neyman
Moving to rural Alaska from the Lower 48 in the 1950s took tough stuff, which Mona Painter possessed. But there was one danger inherent in her new Cooper Landing home about which she couldn’t even fake nonchalance.
“Whenever there was an earthquake I just was really nervous about them. I’d just think, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen?’” Painter said.
They shake your home, your belongings, your neighbors and family. They shake you physically and mentally, rattling your sense of security, all with no warning and no way to tell how long they’ll last, how violent they’ll be or how much damage they’ll cause.
Friends thought her a little silly, trembling at every temblor, but she couldn’t control her fear any more than anyone could control a quake. At 5:36 p.m. Friday, March 27, 1964, her trepidation proved warranted as the second-largest earthquake ever recorded struck in Prince William Sound. The 9.2-magnitude quake shook Southcentral Alaska for nearly four minutes, is blamed for the deaths of 139 people and caused an estimated $311 million in damages ($2.28 billion today) from Alaska down the Pacific Northwest coast and even Hawaii.
As nice as it is to be proven right, Painter would rather have passed on this validation.
“When this one started I jumped up. ‘Oh, Mona! It’s just an earthquake,’ one of my friends said. Hah!” she said.
Painter was in her home on the Snug Harbor Road shore of Kenai Lake in Cooper Landing, having moved there in 1959 after initially spending a year in Seward when she moved up from Oregon in 1958. She and John and Dorthy Ingram had just returned from a trip to Kenai-Soldotna to purchase items for the annual Easter community potluck dinner and egg hunt. Painter’s son, Dan, 7, was home with the measles, along with her youngest two, Kathy, 3, and Peter, 2. Her then husband, Jake Mlynarik, was out of town working in Tok. Eileen Johnson (later Pruitt) was also at the house, having stayed with Painter’s kids, while Johnson’s sons were across the lake with friends.
“The cinder block chimney started falling apart. A prayer plant in a ceramic dish fell off a shelf and broke on Dan’s head. The deep fat fryer, recently filled with cooking oil, burst out of a cupboard and emptied itself on the kitchen floor tile,” Painter said.
Earthquakes weren’t very high on anybody’s radar at the time. There were no public safety messages reminding people what to do in the event of a shake. School kids didn’t practice emergency drills. Heck, there wasn’t even any official advice for how to stay safe during a quake, much less how to prepare for or respond to one. Susceptibility to seismic damages in buildings and infrastructure was, at best, an afterthought.
“Nobody around here adhered to a building code anyway,” Painter said.
They built what they wanted however they wanted. And when the Good Friday quake started rattling those structures, they reacted as seemed best at the time.
“We just wanted to get out, get out of this house! The house seemed to be breaking up all around us,” Painter said. “And now I’m thinking, gosh, nowadays they tell you to get under something and stay inside, but we didn’t know that then.”
Falling, crawling, staggering, reeling, they did manage to exit the house.
“The solid cement porch had split in half with each piece moving up and down. And, actually, the ground was doing weird things outside. Trees looked like they were touching the ground, springing up and going to ground again,” she said.
They got into cars and made it to the bridge over the Kenai River at the outlet of Kenai Lake, intending to cross it to get to Bean Creek Road, where Johnson’s kids were.
“The bridge was gone! It broke into pieces and fell into the river. The river looked black with large whirlpools and was running back into the lake. It was so awful! I thought it was the end of the world and I was NOT READY!” Painter recalled.