By Jenny Neyman
Kids, let Dennis Shangin be a lesson in how not to react during an earthquake.
He was 6 at the time of the Good Friday quake March 27, 1964, playing outside his home in Perryville on the Alaska Peninsula.
“The only way I remember it is I was trying to run away from my mom,” said Shangin, of Soldotna. “She came out hollering so I started running. I thought she was mad at me. ‘I didn’t do it!’”
He remembers the ground starting to undulate, like long, slow waves rolling onto a sandy shore.
“I kept looking back and running and I’d fall down. She was just hollering at me, that’s why I kept running,” he said.
A much better example is that set by the kindergarteners in Jane Evenson’s class at Soldotna Elementary School, one of the many schools, workplaces and organizations statewide participating in the Great Alaska ShakeOut drill Thursday to commemorate the ’64 quake.
When the intercom chimed in during story time to announce the start of the drill, the students were prepared, having already practiced and discussed what to do if the earth started to move, or if they were told to pretend the earth was moving.
“When an earthquake happens we don’t plan for it so we’re going to pretend right now that we don’t know it’s going to happen,” Evenson said. “How are we going to be safe today? Where are we going to go?”
The answers were quick and enthusiastic: Get under a table! Away from the glass windows! Cover your head!
“Will the plants break?” one of the students wanted to know, wondering about a class project sitting in front of the windows.
“If there was a real earthquake we’d have to move our plants,” instructed another.
“Well, we wouldn’t have time to do anything but get our bodies safe,” Evenson reminded them.
“Is the earth going to shake for real today?” she asked, to a chorus of, “No!”
“Probably not, but we don’t know because we can’t plan for an earthquake, but we certainly can plan to be safe,” Evenson said.
Shortly thereafter, amid a discussion of caterpillars and chameleons, came the calm, polite announcement from the office initiating the mock emergency.
“Good afternoon. We will now be conducting our earthquake drill. Please take action as if there was an earthquake in our building.”
The kids’ response was a little less placid, with an excitement level befitting kindergarteners, but orderly in that the students moved instantaneously to wiggle themselves into curled-up heaps under three rectangular tables away from the windows. There they huddled, mostly stationary yet nearly vibrating in the excitement-provoked state of kid kinetic stasis.
No one said vocal chords had to be still, though.
“Over here! Quick! Ow! You just hit my butt! Get in! That’s my chair!”
Evenson’s voice cut through the squeaks, shrieks and chatter with the same soothing, musical intonation she’d just been using to discuss lizard camouflage.
“Find a spot to be safe under the tables and cover your heads,” she said.
“My brain is safe!”
“Hopefully the earth will stop shaking soon,” she said.
“Let me in! Hurry! It stinks under here!”
“Jackson, are you OK?” Evenson started roll call, huddling under a table with a pile a kids and her clipboard.
“Tucker, are you OK?”
“Yes, there’s a chair on my back.”
“Sometimes the earth just has to move. We want to stay safe under the tables,” she said.
“I want playtime!”
“The earth will stop shaking soon, just hold on. Earthquakes can last for many, many minutes,” she said.
About four minutes, in the case of the 1964 Good Friday quake. And in Kenai on Thursday, a remembrance for the 50th anniversary of that record-setting temblor took six minutes, and was even louder than the peals from the kindergarteners.
At 5:30 p.m., Dennis and Leora Shangin, Benjamin Jackinsky and Fr. Thomas Andrew met at Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Old Town Kenai to ring the three brass bells hanging in the steeple. Churches throughout Alaska were asked to take part, and Bishop of Sitka and All Alaska David Mahaffey issued a special request to all Russian Orthodox parishes in the state to participate.
“We would all be remiss if we did not remember it in a fitting way that pays homage to the heroic efforts of many on that fateful day, and causes us to remember all those who lost their lives on that tragic day,” Bishop Mahaffey wrote.
Russian Orthodox churches were to ring all their bells at 5:34 p.m. to represent “the ongoing life of Alaskans before the quake,” followed by silence for two minutes at 5:34 p.m., when the earthquake struck, and two more minutes with the tolling of just the largest bell once every 10 seconds, to represent those who were killed or otherwise impacted by the quake.
“In this way, we will pay honor to both the living and the dead who were a part of that historic event in the life of the State of Alaska,” Bishop Mahaffey wrote.
In the Kenai church while waiting for the precise time, talk of course drifted to Alaska’s version of, “Where were you when… ?”
Andrew was 5 in his hometown of Marshall at the time of the quake, but doesn’t really remember it. Jackinsky was about the same age, at home in Ninilchik, and has a vague recollection, but nothing specific. Leora Shangin was all of about 3 months old in Chignik Lake on the Alaska Peninsula. Dennis Shangin definitely had the most vivid memory, even if it was mostly of his mom hollering and chasing him, rather than the quake itself.
Whether the 1964 quake is individually recalled or not, the memory of it is built into life in Alaska nowadays. So much more is known about earthquakes because of that massive, 9.2-magnitude event. Its aftershocks are ingrained in building codes and safety regulations, taken into account in emergency preparedness, practiced in school drills and memorialized by church bells.
“Get ready. They’re kind of hard to pull, especially the big one,” Fr. Andrew said as he, Jackinsky and Shangin each took hold of a chord strung down from the trio of bells hanging two flights of ladders above. When the cellphone clock ticked down to 5:34 on the dot, the three started heaving the pulls, causing a tri-toned cacophony above. The next two minutes were a welcomed rest. For the last two minutes of single peals, Jackinsky climbed up into the belfry for better leverage on the biggest bell.
“You wanted to go up there,” Fr. Andrew teased as Jackinsky experienced how exponentially louder the bell became when perched just a few feet under it.
Fr. Andrew counted down the intervening 10 seconds.
“Well, we did it,” Fr. Andrew said, after the reverberations of the last peal settled into a whisper, then a quiver, then silence.
In Evenson’s class, the day also quickly returned to normal as soon as the drill came to an end and the students climbed out from under the tables. But normal regarding earthquakes today is much different than the normal of 1964, when residents didn’t know much about how to prepare for or survive an earthquake. Whether they think much about it outside of drills or not, those students know what to do if the ground does indeed begin to shake.
And Shangin knows what not to do — don’t run from your mother.