John Martin and his sister had been skiing in Girdwood on a beautiful day March 27, 1964. The skiing had been so good the two missed the bus that would have taken them home. Martin says missing that bus may have saved his life.
The siblings were waiting for a neighbor to take them home in the parking lot of the ski lodge. As they entered the car, the earthquake started.
“I saw the ground going like this,” Martin said, moving his hand like a wave. “People were yelling, screaming and the day lodge fell in and caused a huge noise and somebody yelled, ‘Avalanche!’”
When Martin heard that, he took off running down the road.
“The only thing to beat me down that road was a Volvo,” Martin laughed, but the whole experience scared him. “It was terrifying, absolutely terrifying.”
Martin said there was snow dust and damage all over. There was no way they were getting into town that night. He said dozens of avalanches blocked the roads to town. Martin, his sister and the neighbors broke into a cabin of an acquaintance and spent the night there.
“There were a lot of aftershocks,” Martin said. “I slept 20 minutes the whole night because I was absolutely terrified at that point.”
The next day a helicopter pilot landed in Girdwood and came looking for the Martin children. He was a friend of their father’s. Martin’s father had sent him to find his children. He flew the kids back where Martin got a bird’s eye view of the damage between Anchorage and Girdwood.
“All we could see was avalanche after avalanche,” he said. He remembers seeing bridge pilings sticking up through a bridge.
The kids didn’t know what to expect. When they got back home, the road to where they lived dropped off abruptly.
Martin described collapsed soil and jagged ground. As they walked toward what was left of the home his father spent years building, his usually stern neighbor came up and hugged them.
“She said, ‘I’m so sorry, your house is gone,’” Martin said.
Martin calculated where he and his sister would have been if they hadn’t missed the ski bus. He said they would have been walking home along a driveway that dropped 10 feet during the quake.
“We might have been killed,” he said.
Martin said his parents were home during the quake.
“They walked out on the patio. The patio went down. The house went up and the garage fell in,” he said. “They had to claw their way up the driveway.”
The family stayed with neighbors. Martin recalls going in collapsed houses to retrieve items. Looking back, Martin said it was probably a very dangerous thing to do.
The aftermath of the quake sounds almost post-apocalyptic.
“The National Guard came out and they had martial law,” Martin said. “There were troops patrolling all around, putting pipes and water in their homes.”
The family moved in about a month. They bought a house on Hillcrest, far away from the Turnagain slide area. It was hard on Martin’s father who had taken a lot of care in building the Turnagain home.
Martin said a hint of an earthquake will send him running. It’s also brought good things to his life too. Martin said experiencing a devastating quake like that taught him about being resilient.
“I’m a survivor,” Martin said. “I’ve done a lot of things in my life. It’s had a lot of influence on what I’ve done and how I’ve done it.”