A series of coincidences kept the Walker family out of harm’s way in Valdez on March 27, 1964.
On that day, a 400-foot freighter, the S.S. Chena, was in port. That meant many of the men in town would work as longshoremen for the day. Children would go down to look at the ship. There’s video footage of the crew throwing candy to kids who came to see the freighter.
“When you don't have TV, you don't have radio growing up in Valdez,” said 2014 gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker. “When the ship came in it was a big deal especially if you were 12-years-old."
Walker planned on socializing with friends at the dock, but he had work to do first.
Walker was 12-years-old at the time. When the ship first arrived, he and his brother, Bob, helped his dad, Ed, unload lumber for their construction company, Ed Walker Construction. After his work was done, Walker planned on meeting up with a friend and heading back to the dock. Walker looked forward to relaxing the rest of the day at the dock with a friend after helping his father with the hard work of unloading freight.
Walker’s plans changed when his father, Ed needed help collecting sand for a construction project. In 1964 in Valdez, collecting sand meant cutting a hole in river ice, shoveling the sand and rocks out, and then screening the dirt.
Walker said he was disappointed to miss a day at the dock, but he didn’t question his father.
"He wasn't a big one to ask me. He just said this is what we're doing and that's what we did," Walker said. While they worked at the river, Bill and Bob shook a screen Ed his dad shoveled river gravel.
Bill said he and his brother were having trouble keeping up with their dad's shoveling. Growing frustrated, Ed took the screen from the boys to show them how to shake it properly. The moment he started shaking the screen, the earth under their feet shook too. The experience was so strange, that it seemed to Bill, at first, it was Ed shaking the earth.
"Trees were falling over and the river was opening up,” Walker said. “For a few seconds I thought, 'man, he is really mad.'"
It became clear quickly that there was something much bigger going on.
Bill describes the ground rippling like a flag waving. Bill said the river opened up and trees fell over. He knew how serious the earthquake was when Ed told Bill and Bob to get going.
"My dad said 'leave the tools and first one to the car can drive,'" Walker said.
When they got to the car, one end of the car was lodged in a crevasse. Bill hopped in the driver's seat while Bob and Ed pushed the car out.
After the earthquake the three of them drove to town. They were already late for dinner. Dinner was supposed to be at 5:30 p.m. The earthquake was at 5:37 p.m. Walker said the last thing he'd told his mother that morning was he was going to be spending the afternoon at the docks.
Quickly the town learned that those who were at the docks died that day. People reported seeing the S.S. Chena bounce so hard the propeller was visible in the air above the water.
"Everybody knew that no one made it off the dock," Walker said.
In such a small town, everyone knew each other.
"It was just suddenly a whole different realm,” Walker said. “It was quite a while before we knew all that died."
Walker said one of the sadder stories he knew of was the high school basketball coach, James Growden Sr. died with his sons. Growden had taken his boys down to the dock to reward them.
Shortly after the quake, a tsunami swept into Valdez. It destroyed and badly damaged many of the remaining houses and businesses.
Walker's entire family survived the earthquake. His sisters had been saved from a worse fate when they stopped at a card store to pick up a wedding card before heading to the dock.
Though they all survived, life after the quake was very different. The National Guard evacuated Valdez residents to Glenallen. Many of the women who lost their husbands went to Fairbanks. Some of the earthquake refugees settled there, others left Alaska for good. After the earthquake and following tidal wave, the town was damaged beyond repair.
Valdez had a decision to make: move or rebuild. Walker's family construction company was near bankruptcy. Walker said he and his brother, father and sisters worked cleaning the post office and schools to make ends meet. They worked to pay off the supplies on the S.S. Chena destroyed by the shaking.
Walker described how the world in the small town changed by just five minutes. He said he remembers before the earthquake, there was controversy over the school board. He said after the quake, someone said they wished for yesterday's problems.
When officials decided to move the town to another area, the Walker family got into the house moving business once the city made the decision to move to a safer location. Walker said he's glad he lived through it, but wouldn't want to live through the quake again. He said it's something he thinks about every time he feels the ground shake.
"I don't think it's possible to put it completely behind you," Walker said. "I'm in an airport and I feel a vibration. The first think I think is an earthquake. My first thought is, 'are we having another one?' You just don't put that behind you."