Living near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in the early 1960s, Bellingham’s Dorothy Young said earthquakes were a common occurrence.
But she’d never felt anything like what happened the night of March 27, 1964 — then again, nobody standing on North American soil in recorded history has ever felt anything like the 9.2 Great Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami, either. It was the largest earthquake ever recorded on the continent.
“We had earthquakes all the time,” Young told The Bellingham Herald, ironically speaking on Nov. 30 — the same day that the Anchorage area was rocked by 7.0 and 5.7 earthquakes. “They’d rumble in and pass through, and it was no big deal.
“But this one was different. This one started and it didn’t stop — it just kept going and going. It was so loud and so rumbly and so rolly, and it just went on and on. I heard the one today shook for a minute to a minute and a half — in 1964 it didn’t stop for nearly five minutes.”
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In many ways for those who lived through that 1964 quake, the shaking still hasn’t stopped impacting their lives.
At 8 p.m. Tuesday, part of Young’s story will be told in the PBS series “We’ll Meet Again with Ann Curry.” The series, which is now in its second season, features reunions of people who lived through pivotal moments in history.
Tuesday’s episode focuses on the Great Alaska Earthquake, which caused catastrophic damage and 131 fatalities and impacted thousands of lives.
One of those lives was Michelle Wiley, who was just a child living in the Turnagain neighborhood of Anchorage in 1964 when the great quake struck.
On that fateful day, Wiley and her best friend at the time, Gretchen (Young) Huizinga — Young’s daughter — went ice skating on a day off from school and returned to Young’s house shortly before dinner time.
The pair of youngsters were downstairs watching TV when the whole neighborhood started violently shaking at 5:36 p.m.
“You could tell right away this was not a normal earthquake,” Young told The Herald. “I was making dinner at the time, and the girls were downstairs, and I just remember dishes and everything flying around.”
Huizinga and Wiley immediately sought the comfort of an adult’s protection and began crawling up the stairs to the kitchen where Young was waiting at the top of the stairs.
“I was just so grateful to know where my children were at the time and to have them with me and be able to comfort them,” Young told The Herald, “and the fact that Michelle was there visiting, it was just natural to comfort her at the same time.”
Young clutched the children in her arms, as they sought safety by huddling in a kitchen doorway, something that has stuck with Wiley.
“I just remember feeling safe, because her arms were all around us,” Wiley said during the PBS episode.
“A mother hen opens her wings and scoops the chicks up in them,” Young told Wiley and Huizinga during the episode. “I don’t know if I thought about being a mother hen at the time, I just knew I had to hold you all. ... I couldn’t do anything other than I did.”
After the shaking mercifully came to an end, Wiley’s mother came to the Young’s house to pick up her daughter, and that was the last time Wiley saw her friend.
With no power or working amenities and with young children, the Young family decided move to Whatcom County, where they had relatives, while Wiley’s family remained in the area to rebuild.
But Wiley always wondered what happened to her childhood friend, and her search to reunite with Huizinga — along with a similar search by a man who was a boy in Valdez, Alaska, at the time of the earthquake — are the basis of Tuesday’s episode. Along they tell their stories from that unforgettable day and its aftermath.
Wiley’s search brought her to the Bellingham Public Library, where public services librarian Suzanne Carlson-Prandini helped her locate a Bellingham High School yearbook that included pictures of Huizinga and public records that showed she got married, changing her last name from Young.
That ultimately led to the reunion of the three at Huizinga’s Woodinville home.
“We knew something was happening,” Young told The Herald. “We didn’t know who it was — that’s just part of the way they were running the series. They didn’t tell us who it was. They just said someone was looking for us, so we had no idea.
“We kept speculating, and but we didn’t learn until we were well into the situation. And we hadn’t seen her in so many years — it’ll be 55 years in March. Our lives went in such different directions, and out of the blue this happened. It was surprising.”
Besides getting to reconnect with her daughter’s childhood friend, Young said she’s looking forward to watching the episode Tuesday and reliving the historical event.
“We’re very curious to see what it will be,” Young told The Herald. “I doubt we’ll have a very large part in it, but it was so good to reconnect with Michelle and to see how she is doing. We lived through something together that none of us will forget.”