ANCHORAGE — Chris Riekena was driving his 7-year-old son to school when his car started acting up. As he pulled over, he realized the problem wasn’t his car — it was a huge earthquake.
Riekena turned around to calm his son in the back seat and when he looked forward again, the road ahead of him was sinking into the earth. He pulled his son out of the car as light poles along the road swayed.
By the time the shaking stopped Friday, the car just in front of his on the freeway was marooned on an island of asphalt with a huge chasm on both sides.
“It was probably a good 30 to 40 seconds of slow-motion disaster,” said Riekena, an engineer with the Alaska Department of Transportation who later returned to the site for his job.
“Thankfully I pulled over when I did,” he said. “I’ve walked around the site enough over the last few hours that I’ve replayed that a few times.”
Back-to-back earthquakes measuring 7.0 and 5.7 cracked highways and rocked buildings Friday in Anchorage and the surrounding area, sending people running into the streets and briefly triggering a tsunami warning for islands and coastal areas south of the city.
No tsunami arrived, and there were no reports of deaths or serious injuries.
Aftershocks Saturday continued to fray nerves. U.S. Geological Survey Geophysicist Paul Caruso said there have been 545 aftershocks, including the 5.7 magnitude shaker that came almost immediately after Friday’s big quake. Eleven have had magnitudes of 4.5 or greater.
The aftershocks should be weaker and less frequent in the coming days, but officials can’t say for sure when they’ll stop, Caruso said.
The USGS said the first and more powerful quake was centered about 7 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, with a population of about 300,000. People ran from their offices or took cover under desks. The 5.7 aftershock arrived within minutes, followed by a series of smaller quakes.
“We just hung onto each other. You couldn’t even stand,” said Sheila Bailey, who was working at a high school cafeteria in Palmer, about 45 miles from Anchorage, when the quake struck. “It sounded and felt like the school was breaking apart.”
Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll said he had been told that parts of Glenn Highway, a scenic route that runs northeast out of the city past farms, mountains and glaciers, had “completely disappeared.”
The quake broke store windows, knocked items off shelves, opened cracks in a two-story building downtown, disrupted electrical service and disabled traffic lights, snarling traffic.
Flights at the airport were suspended for hours after the quake knocked out telephones and forced the evacuation of the control tower. And the 800-mile Alaska oil pipeline was shut down for hours while crews were sent to inspect it for damage.
Anchorage’s school system canceled classes and asked parents to pick up their children while it examined buildings for gas leaks or other damage.
Jonathan Lettow was waiting with his 5-year-old daughter and other children for a school bus near their home in Wasilla, about 40 miles north of Anchorage, when the quake struck. The children got on the ground in a circle while Lettow tried to keep them calm and watched for falling trees.
“It’s one of those things where in your head, you think, ‘OK, it’s going to stop,’ and you say that to yourself so many times in your head that finally you think, ‘OK, maybe this isn’t going to stop,’” he said.
Soon after the shaking ended, the school bus pulled up and the children boarded, but the driver stopped at a bridge and refused to go across because of deep cracks in the road, he said.
Gov. Bill Walker issued a disaster declaration. And President Donald Trump late Friday declared an emergency, which allowed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts.
In Kenai, southwest of Anchorage, Brandon Slaton was soaking in his bathtub when the earthquake struck. The temblor created a powerful back-and-forth sloshing that threw him out of the tub, he said.
His 120-pound mastiff panicked and tried to run down the stairs, but the house was swaying so much that the dog was thrown into a wall and tumbled down the stairs, Slaton said.
Slaton ran into his son’s room after the shaking stopped. The boy’s fish was on the floor, gasping, its tank shattered. Slaton put the fish in a bowl.
“It was anarchy,” he said. “There’s no pictures left on the walls, there’s no power, there’s no fish tank left. Everything that’s not tied down is broke.”
Borough Emergency Manager Dan Nelson said there had been reports of minor damage to public infrastructure on the peninsula, including on Mile 19, 35.1 and 35.7 of the Kenai Spur Highway in Nikiski, where the road cracked. Crews were repairing damaged roadways in Nikiski Friday afternoon.
The borough began working with state agencies to do a more comprehensive assessment of public buildings, including schools, roads, and bridges, Nelson said.
All Kenai Peninsula Borough School District after-school events were canceled, including Kenai Central High’s Forever Dance event and local high school sports events.
Nikiski Middle/High School was the only school released early at 12:45 p.m. on Friday, due to water and plumbing issues, Pegge Erkeneff, communications liaison said. The Kenai Peninsula College also closed its doors Friday and through the weekend.
Although minor damage was reported at some businesses — Kenai Walmart closed its doors to customers Friday morning, citing earthquake damage — neither Soldotna Central Emergency Services or Kenai Police dispatch had received any earthquake-related calls as of Friday afternoon.
Homer Electric Association Director of Member Services Bruce Shelley said 42 homes on Candlelight Drive in Kenai were affected but otherwise only small outages were reported.
Lindsay Hobson, ENSTAR communications manager, said they had received numerous reports of gas leaks.
“We are responding to those as our first level of order business to make sure that residents are safe and customers are safe,” Hobson said.
Jim Lackey, operation supervisor at the Kenai City Airport, said no damage was reported and as of Friday afternoon the airport was “open and good to go.”
Following the quake, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a tsunami warning for the Cook Inlet area and the Southern Kenai Peninsula.
In Seward, many residents evacuated to one of several shelters at higher ground, including the Seward High School and Providence Seward Medical Center.
The initial tsunami warning was rescinded and then reissued, causing some confusion as people debated whether to evacuate tsunami inundation zones in Seward.
In Homer, tsunami sirens were activated and residents were advised to move to higher ground above Pioneer Avenue, and the Homer High School was opened as a shelter.
Although there were visible scars from the earthquake — 6-inch-thick ice on Beluga Lake had long cracks running roughly parallel to the shore — little damage was reported.
The Homer Harbor reported no damage as of Friday afternoon. Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins said staff at the office evacuated shortly after the initial quake.
“We did just fine,” Hawkins said. “…We started making preps to get out. Common sense says when the ground shakes that hard you should head for high ground. … The sirens hadn’t sounded yet, but we had lots of company as we were leaving.”
After the all-clear and tsunami warning was canceled, harbor crews returned to assess damage. Hawkins said he and other officers did a quick assessment and did not see any obvious damage. He recommended that mariners check boats and lines.
South Peninsula Hospital, which reported no injuries or no damage from the quake, went to Hospital Incident Command System, or HICS, Level 1 right after the quake, and looked for possible damage. After the tsunami alert it went to HICS 2, said SPH Spokesperson Derotha Ferraro.
Grog Shop owner Mel Strydom reported no damage at the Pioneer Avenue liquor store as well as the Rum Locker and Grog Shop East stores. He was more worried about being able to get supplies coming down from Anchorage on the Seward and Sterling Highways that had been damaged in the quake.
“We’re all good,” Strydom said. “It’s going to impact us because our suppliers come out of Anchorage. They’ll be down for awhile. I’m assuming the road will be open soon.”
Alaska was the site of the nation’s most powerful earthquake ever recorded. The 9.2-magnitude quake on March 27, 1964, was centered about 75 miles east of Anchorage. It and the tsunami it triggered claimed about 130 lives.
The state averages 40,000 earthquakes a year, with more large quakes than the 49 other states combined. Southern Alaska has a high risk of earthquakes because the Earth’s plates slide past each other under the region, but it is rare for a quake this big to strike so close to such a heavily populated area.
David Harper was getting coffee at a store when the low rumble began and intensified into something that sounded “like the building was just going to fall apart.” He ran for the exit with other patrons.
“People who were outside were actively hugging each other,” he said. “You could tell that it was a bad one.”
Peninsula Clarion reporters Victoria Petersen and Kat Sorensen and Homer News reporters Megan Pacer and Michael Armstrong contributed to this report.
• By RACHEL D’ORO and DAN JOLING, Associated Press