Had Alaska’s 1964 earthquake happened just a half-hour earlier than it did, many people would have been spared, but as it happened, life in Chenega was busy on the beaches and coastline where the many lived.
Chenega was a small Alutiqq island village in the Prince William Sound. Avis Kompkoff was a young mother of one daughter and two sons. Avis remembers an idyllic village where people were kind to each other, people lived off the land and life was simple.
On that March day, Kompkoff was heating up water for a steam bath. She distinctly remembers her oldest child, 3-and-a-half-year-old Joanne asking if she could go to grandma’s house. Avis said she remembers a voice telling her to let the girl go.
“That voice in my head was telling me to send her home,” Kompkoff said.
But she says for some reason something told her not to send her oldest son, Joe. The seemingly benign detail meant the difference between life and death for Kompkoff’s children.
Kompkoff was taking out clothes to wear after the bath when Joe started running around and looking scared.
“I thought, what the heck is wrong with him,” Kompkoff said. Then she felt the house shaking. “I could see the hot water on the stove shaking,” she said.
Kompkoff grabbed her sons, Joe and Lloyd and went outside. People were running. Kompkoff remembers the look of terror on people’s faces and the water getting rough out in the ocean. She saw a man carrying a chubby baby girl, running past. Kompkoff remembers someone yelled, “tidal wave!” and everyone ran. Kompkoff was only wearing slippers and she lost them running in the spring snow.
“I wish I could project it out on the wall and let everybody see what it was like,” Kompkoff said.
The best way she could describe it was like the world was being held up by thin puppet strings, and they were “just slowly swinging back and forth and they could break at any moment.”
They fled to the school house, which sat on a hill, higher than the rest of the village. Kompkoff remembers it was 100 steps up the hillside. At the schoolhouse, the teacher gave out her own boots and warm clothing to people who had escaped in a rush. “Everybody’s trying to gather everything, seeing who made it, who didn’t.”
Kompkoff remembers her feet were cold when another tidal wave hit the village. She doesn’t remember anyone telling her that her mother, father and baby daughter were gone.
“I knew in my heart of hearts that my mom and dad and Joanne didn’t make it,” she said. “They didn’t have to tell me, I knew it.”
In a moment, her village was changed forever and Kompkoff recalls an overwhelming sense of grief. The man’s chubby baby girl died, Avis said, and she remembers the baby’s mother almost mad with grief.
A U.S. Coast Guard pilot flew over the village the next day and reported the people were okay. He saw everyone waving from the roof and mistakenly thought they were fine. It took the village’s regular bush pilot Jim Osborne to realize the true damage that had happened to Chenega. As the pilot was flying, he told the villagers, he saw rubble floating in the ocean. The small bush plane could only accommodate a few people. Osborne took several trips to get everyone. As Kompkoff boarded the plane, Joanne’s father asked where Joanne was. “That was a big hurt,” Kompkoff said, “I said she’s with mom and them, wherever they went and the look on his face was horrible.” Kompkoff sat right next to the pilot.
The small bush plane could only accommodate a few people. Osborne took several trips to get everyone. As Avis got on the plane, Joanne’s father asked where Joanne was.
“That was a big hurt,” Avis said, “I said she’s with mom and them, wherever they went, and the look on his face was horrible.”
The tsunamis killed 26 people living in Chenega. It was a heavy toll for any village, but especially one with a total population of only 78 people. The village of Chenega had lost families, friends and one-third of its community. There wasn’t anything for them to go back to. The villagers evacuated to Cordova. From there, it was a blur.
A search party found little Joanne Kompkoff a few weeks later. Kompkoff said she was told that part of the girl’s face and stomach were eaten by birds.The local doctor recognized the little girl, “He knew her. He told them, no.” The doctor gave Kompkoff the t-shirt and cross necklace the girl was wearing. Kompkoff said she remembers going to the funeral for her daughter and leaving the ceremony, but what went on, she doesn’t remember.
Avis said she remembers going to the funeral for her daughter and leaving the ceremony, but what went on, she doesn’t remember.
After a few months in Cordova, the remaining villagers moved to a tent village. Then they moved to Tatitlek for awhile. Kompkoff said they were glad for the help, but it wasn’t home.
“There was that lost feeling,” Kompkoff said.
Before the quake, Kompkoff described Chenega as a tight-knit community. The community used to celebrate Russian Orthodox holidays together. Sometimes several of them would get together and go in to Anchorage or Cordova together.
Kompkoff doesn’t know why she felt she had to send Joanne to her mother’s house that day. The girl had been the apple of her grandmother’s eye, she said. Joanne was the woman’s first grandchild. Joanne was premature.
“She was so tiny when she came home. Everybody wanted to touch her,” Kompkoff said. “But she was my mom’s baby. “
Kompkoff said people used to ask Avis how she made a baby to look just like her mama.
Kompkoff son Lloyd was only 4 months old when the quake hit, but the horror of that day stuck with the little boy. The horror of that day left him with night terrors
“Sometimes he’d run into a wall and he’d holler about the water. He was like that for years,” Kompkoff said.
Kompkoff knows that terror. Since the quake, when she feels stressed out, she feels the earth shaking. Kompkoff remembers it happening in Cordova, where she lives now.
“I’d have to go downtown and look at the street lights to make sure they weren’t moving,” she said. “Sometimes I felt like the pavement was melted plastic.”
Recalling the day is full of odd coincidences. Julia Kompkoff was killed by the tsunami. Kompkoff remembers seeing the girl moments before she died. It was before any of them knew that the day would bring something different. The girl played outside the window of Kompkoff’s house. Kompkoff distinctly remembers looking up to see Julia waving.
“They never did find her,” Kompkoff said. “She never did that before.”
Julia’s goodbye is just one of many memories that haunt Kompkoff to this day. For years, she felt the topic too taboo to discuss. Kompkoff said at the time there wasn’t the mental health support systems that exist now. She felt the topic too taboo to discuss for a long time.
Looking back, Kompkoff wishes it was different, “I just wish we had gotten together more and talked about with other people because we never knew what they went through.”
Kompkoff doesn’t know if the dreams about her mother will go away.
In one, she’s visiting with her mother, “it’s a good day when I wake up.” Other dreams are darker. Kompkoff searches the village for her mother and each house she goes to, she learns her mother has just left, “I’m real irritated when I wake up all day.”
Kompkoff said the loss she suffered is something she’ll never completely recover from. She takes comfort in her faith now. “I knew God made the world. They couldn’t convince me that he didn’t.”
She described the natural beauty of Chenega and the feelings of being out in Prince William Sound on a skiff. “It didn’t go big bang and there it was. It’s too awesome, puppies and kitties, flowers.”
Kompkoff has had the opportunity to see the most beautiful and the most horrific nature has to offer, both experiences have cemented her belief in a higher power, but that doesn’t mean she knows all the answers. Why was her tiny village so devastated by a natural disaster?
“There’s a reason for it you don’t know why yet,” she said, “One of these days, you’ll find out.”